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Rookie Backe gets team out of a jam

Rays relief pitcher Brandon Backe didn't get a victory Saturday. He didn't get a save, either. But his performance, which lasted all of 10 pitches, deserved more than a brief line in the box score.

It was critical to the Rays' 3-2 victory against the White Sox.

Backe came on in the sixth with the bases loaded and one out and struck out Tony Graffanino and Miguel Olivo to preserve a precarious 1-0 lead.

"I love pressure situations," Backe said. "I've gone through them my whole life. And when you're called upon in pressure situations like this, you feel like no one can stop you."

After striking out Graffanino, though, Backe hit a speed bump. He fell behind Olivo 3-1 and got a visit from pitching coach Chris Bosio.

"My knees were shaking," Backe said. "My mouth was a little dry. I was hoping he was coming out with a cup of water for me. But he came out with some words of encouragement."

Showing nerve that a rookie is not supposed to have, Backe threw Olivo three straight sliders. Olivo fouled off two and missed the third. Backe leaped off the mound and sprinted to the dugout while pumping his fists.

"Boy can he throw," Rays manager Lou Piniella said. "You can't pay for that type of experience. You've got to be out there on the mound to experience for real."

CLOSE CALL: Closer Lance Carter nearly had his third blown save in four outings. He entered in the ninth with a 3-0 lead and gave up two runs before nailing down the victory.

That's why Piniella is thinking about giving Carter, who is second in the AL with six blown saves, a bit of a break by using him in different situations, at least temporarily while Carter works out of his funk.

"We might lessen his load and get him sharp," Piniella said. "He's struggling somewhat. You back him off a little bit and let him get back together."

BE MY VALENTIN: Catcher Javier Valentin made his second consecutive start. But the bigger news was that catcher Toby Hall was on the bench for the second consecutive game.

"We're working on getting him back (in his stance) and getting his weight on his back leg a little better," said Piniella, who is hoping to improve Hall's power and average numbers.

Hall is hitting .263 with five homers and 23 RBIs.

"I'm disappointed disappointed in No. 44," Hall said referring to himself. "But I feel fine, I feel good."

Piniella said Hall will be in the lineup today and likely will stay there for the next several days. In a rarity, the Rays face left-handed starters the next four games.

NO ORDINARY JOE: The Rays were encouraged by Joe Kennedy's rehabilitation start for Triple-A Durham in Richmond on Friday. Kennedy, out the past month with left shoulder inflammation, threw 6 innings, allowing one run on six hits to get the win. He struck out five and walked none.

"Joe threw very well, the reports were excellent," Piniella said. "Let's hope he shows up here (today) and feels great."

If he does, Kennedy will start Wednesday in Oakland and the first game after the All-Star break.

TAMPA BAY TO JAPAN: The Rays and the Yokohama Bay Stars from Japan's Central League signed a three-year working agreement that runs through the 2005 season.

As part of the agreement, Yokohama will provide scouting information to the Rays on all levels from high school to professional, while the Rays will help the Bay Stars acquire foreign players.

The teams also will share views on baseball operations, scouting, player development, marketing, sales, and merchandising.

_ TOM JONES

OUTTA LEFTFIELD

Rays manager Lou Piniella was reminded of his playing days with the Yankees. Back then, the Yankees had Bat Day, with each fan receiving the bat of a particular player. The player depended on what gate a fan went through. "Yeah," Piniella said, "to get one of my bats, you had to go through the restrooms."

TODAY: RAYS VS. WHITE SOX

WHEN/WHERE: 1:15; Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg.

TV/RADIO: Pax; WFLA-AM 970.

PITCHERS: White Sox _ LHP Mark Buehrle (6-10, 4.36 ERA); Rays _ RHP Jason Standridge (0-3, 3.99).

WORTH NOTING: Standridge, making his seventh career start, is searching for his first big-league victory. He has pitched well enough, however, to pick up a win or two. He has allowed three runs or fewer in five of his six major-league starts.

PROMOTION: The first 5,000 fans receive a free Monte Irvin poster, courtesy of the Times. Irvin will be honored before the game.

RAYS TICKETS: Available at the Tropicana Field box office, through all Ticketmaster outlets, online at devilrays.com or ticketmaster.com and the Rays Dugout store at WestShore Plaza in Tampa. Beach tickets go on sale at Gate 6 two hours before the game.

INFORMATION: Call toll-free 1-888-FAN-RAYS (1-888-326-7297).

Terry Shumpert takes Lou Piniella's hat and gets what may be his last look at the manager's salt-and-pepper hair.

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