It is difficult to imagine the emotions Devil Rays pitcher John Webb wrestled with Thursday as he walked to the mound at Yankee Stadium.
Webb's brother, James, 18, died of brain cancer the night before. The right-hander kept the news to himself and then pitched the best game of his major-league career, throwing four scoreless innings with two hits, two strikeouts and two walks.
Webb returned to his native Pensacola to be with his family.
"He just really wanted to pitch," said Rays pitcher Todd Ritchie, one of Webb's best friends on the team. "It was tough to deal with. It definitely had to be a heavy load going out there."
"He separated what he had to do at the moment and got through it. That's professional," said Tim Hill, Webb's coach at Manatee Community College. "It was a very emotional job. Everyone here is proud of him."
Hill said James was diagnosed in 1999. The cancer went into remission but returned. Hill said He took a turn for the worse over three weeks.
"He told me he talked to him the day before he died," Ritchie said of John. "He said he knew it was coming for a long time so he had time to prepare for it. But it still hurts."
Not that Webb let on.
"I didn't know anything about it," Rays pitching coach Chuck Hernandez said. "I talked to him 10 minutes before the game and he didn't say anything."
HEY, IT'S TORONTO: The three-game series between the Rays and Jays could go a long way to determining who finishes last in the East. Tampa Bay, of course, has finished there in each of its first six seasons and entered Thursday a half-game ahead of cellar-dwelling Toronto.
Still, some players said that race clouds the bigger picture.
"We don't want to finish last," third baseman Aubrey Huff said. "At the same time, we finish fourth or finish last we're still going home. Obviously, there's still a lot of improvement to be made. Not finishing last would be a step, but it's not our ultimate goal."
"We don't care who we play, we try to go out there and win," catcher Toby Hall said. "It's the same frustrating comments we say every year. The bottom line is we have to get better. Then we wouldn't be having these discussions."
NEW YORK LOVES PINIELLA: Rays manager Lou Piniella could not have been clearer when he told New York reporters Thursday that he plans to stay with the Rays for the remaining two years of his contract. But that didn't stop some of them from writing Piniella had left the door open in case the Mets want him to replace Art Howe.
"I'm done," said Piniella, clearly exasperated. "I'm not even going to answer any more questions about it. All this for a guy who loses 90 games a year. Imagine if we had won 80 what we would have."
_ DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times staff writer