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Rookie handles hometown jitters

He made his major-league debut at fabled Fenway Park. He played his second series on the grand stage of Yankee Stadium. He made his first appearance at Tropicana Field against his old Toronto teammates.

But you know what really made Brent Abernathy sweat?

Playing before 75 Atlanta-area friends and relatives Sunday at Turner Field.

"I was more nervous today, had more jitters and butterflies, than I had my opening night in Boston," said Abernathy, who grew up in suburban Marietta, Ga. "Coming home, and playing in front of the people who have helped get you where you are, you want to play well for them, more for their sake than anything else. I was pretty nervous, hoping to have a good game."

All Abernathy did was get four hits (including two doubles), knock in a run, score two and notch three assists. And that was before leaving the game in the eighth inning with severe cramps.

"Everything went about as well as I could have expected," Abernathy said. "And if I could have finished the game, it would have been a little better."

ROLLING, ROLLING: Albie Lopez and manager Hal McRae have different explanations, but there is no disputing the improvement in his pitching.

In his past four starts, Lopez is 2-1 with a 4.26 ERA. In the 10 before that, he was 0-9 with an 8.36 ERA.

McRae said the difference is that Lopez is mixing his pitches and changing speeds rather than relying on his fastball. "It's been proven to him that he can get outs that way," McRae said.

Lopez said he is pitching better because the groin and thumb injuries he suffered in May have healed, and he is able to use his curveball effectively again. "I just go out and try to throw strikes," Lopez said.

MINOR MATTERS: Durham catcher Toby Hall is on another tear, with hits in 17 of 19 games and a .411 average during that stretch. Plus, he played in the All-Star Futures Game and Triple-A All-Star Game. Through Saturday, Hall was batting .339, tops in the International League. Josh Hamilton, who has played one game since late April, is on the verge of returning to action for Class A Charleston (S.C.).

FIRST AT SECOND: Felix Martinez played second base for the first time as a Ray, replacing Abernathy in the eighth inning. Martinez, normally a shortstop, played three games at second with Kansas City, most recently in September 1999. McRae said he may use Martinez there again.

REHAB REPORT: Juan Guzman, recovering from shoulder surgery, is scheduled to make another rehab start for Durham on Tuesday. Wilson Alvarez, whose shoulder rehab was slowed by forearm tightness, is scheduled to throw batting practice today at the St. Petersburg training complex. Outfielder Jose Guillen, rehabbing a strained left knee, went 2-for-4 in his first game for Durham.

RAYS BITS: Sunday's game was the first in which the Rays hit more than one homer since June 27. A victory tonight or Tuesday would give the Rays their first road series win of the season. The Rays have made 11 errors in their past eight games. The Rays are 9-7 against NL teams, 20-56 vs. AL clubs.

_ MARC TOPKIN

THE PITCHERS

Ryan Rupe

Rupe (4-8, 7.18) has been consistently inconsistent. He got off to a slow start, was sent to the bullpen and then Triple A, came back and threw well, then started to struggle again (0-2, 9.76 in his past three starts). Rupe has one win in three starts against the Braves.

Jason Marquis

The 22-year-old right-hander (2-3, 4.42), one of Atlanta's brightest prospects, has split time between the bullpen and the rotation. This will be his sixth start. Marquis, who has a 96-mph fastball, pitched an inning of relief vs. the Rays last season.

OUTTA LEFTFIELD

Writers from several Georgia papers kept asking rookie Brent Abernathy if he was surprised at how well he has done (a .365 average, with two four-hit days, in 16 games). Abernathy said that he couldn't be surprised since he has confidence in himself. But, he admitted, it has been a pretty good roll. "I'm just on a high right now, and I'm going to try and ride it out as long as it will last," he said.

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