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A stirring farewell (?)

If Sunday's game was Fred McGriff's last as a Ray, he went out with a bang. Actually, with two. And a run-scoring single.

Albie Lopez pitched well, Georgia boy Brent Abernathy had four hits and the Rays played strong defense in an impressive 9-1 win over the Braves.

But it was McGriff, with two home runs, who provided the bulk of the offense and the storyline. And the veteran first baseman could make bigger news today if, as was being reported Sunday in Chicago, he waives his no-trade clause and approves a deal to the Cubs.

Rays general manager Chuck LaMar and Cubs counterpart Andy MacPhail both said they expect a decision today, but neither would hazard a guess.

McGriff refused to discuss the situation after the game. "I'm happy," he said. "I've got a nice little family. I'm very happy."

When the questions persisted, about when or if he'll make a decision, whether he wants to stay in Tampa Bay and even whether he'd be interested in coming back to Atlanta, McGriff said, "Let's talk baseball. All I want to do is play baseball. I'm very happy."

Cubs officials have continued to express optimism that McGriff will approve the deal (manager Don Baylor talked Sunday about how McGriff would fit right into their lineup), and WGN radio reported Sunday that "in all likelihood" McGriff will say yes.

LaMar acknowledged the uniqueness of the situation, trying to work an in-season deal for a marquee player who has a no-trade clause, and praised McGriff for handling the issue "extremely professionally."

"But there has to be a timeframe for every transaction," LaMar said Sunday night, "and I think there will be a decision one way or the other."

MacPhail said the same thing: "We expect to have an answer (today), a definitive yea or nay."

Whether or not McGriff was getting ready to leave the Rays, he made an impressive return to Atlanta, where he starred from 1993-97, and was rewarded with several generous ovations from the Turner Field crowd.

He scorched the first pitch from Odalis Perez down the rightfield line and just over the fence to lead off the second, knocked in a run with an opposite-field single in the third and lofted a majestic homer to right in the fifth. He had a chance for more when he came up with the bases loaded in the sixth, but his hard-hit liner was run down by rightfielder Brian Jordan.

"He should have gone to Chicago yesterday," Atlanta, and former Tampa Bay, outfielder Dave Martinez said.

Word of the trade, which would allow the Rays to cut salary and create playing time for Steve Cox, broke Tuesday. But weighing the potential effects of a move on his family hasn't been much of a distraction for McGriff, who is 5-for-16 with three homers and six RBI in the four games since.

"Fred's been in the news and he's been on a tear," manager Hal McRae said.

As odd as it looks to see the struggling Rays score such an easy win over the contending Braves, it really isn't that surprising. The Rays are a decent 8-13 against teams that are in first place at the time. It's their 21-50 mark against the others that is of more concern.

"We're not knocking off enough teams, that's our problem," McRae said. "We play well against the first-division clubs. But we're not knocking off enough teams. This won't get it. We need to win more consistently and play well more consistently.

"It shows that if we can play well against the first division clubs we can play well against anyone, but we're not doing it. And that's what we need to do."

Lopez pointed them in the right direction, scattering seven hits, six singles, over seven innings and needing 80 pitches to get 21 outs. After going 12 starts between wins, and running up a 10-game losing streak that was the longest in one American League season in five years, Lopez has won two straight.

"He was in control of the ballgame," McRae said.

He got help from his defense. Shortstop Andy Sheets speared a line drive. Centerfielder Damian Rolls, in his second career outfield start, made a sliding catch and a nice running grab. Leftfielder Greg Vaughn made a diving catch.

Abernathy, who grew up in suburban Marietta, put on a show for the 75 friends and relatives who came out to watch him, banging out four hits.

"This was a big win for us," Abernathy said.

Today, we may find out just how memorable it was.

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