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Webb shuts out brother's death

It is difficult to imagine the emotions with which Devil Rays pitcher John Webb wrestled Thursday as he walked to the mound at Yankee Stadium.

Webb's brother, James, 18, had died of brain cancer the night before. The right-hander kept the news to himself and pitched the best game of his major-league career, throwing four scoreless innings with two hits, two strikeouts and two walks.

Webb is in his native Pensacola with his family. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez said Webb will rejoin Rays but told him to take as much time as necessary.

"He just really wanted to pitch," said 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. Everyone here is proud of him."

Hill said James was diagnosed with cancer in 1999. It went into remission but flared in the past year. Hill said James took a turn for the worse the past three weeks.

Ritchie said Webb told him he spoke to James the day before he passed.

"He said he knew it was coming for a long time so he had time to prepare for it," Ritchie said. "But it still hurts."

Not that Webb let on.

"I didn't know anything about it," Hernandez said. "I talked to him 10 minutes before the game and he didn't say anything."

STORM WARNING: Hurricane Jeanne is expected to be nearby on Sunday, but the Rays had no plans as of Friday night to change scheduled games today and Sunday against the Blue Jays, though they said they would monitor the situation.

HEY, IT'S TORONTO: Some players said the race with the Jays to avoid last place in the East misses 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 out ultimate goal."

"It's the same frustrating comments we say every year," catcher Toby Hall said. "The bottom line is we have to get better. Then we wouldn't be having these discussions."

HUFF 'N' STUFF: Huff was a diving catch away from setting a major-league best this season of hits in nine consecutive at-bats. After homering in the first inning to tie Ichiro Suzuki at eight, Huff launched a drive to left-centerfield in the fourth. But Toronto leftfielder Reed Johnson stretched out horizontally to make a superb catch. "A great play," Huff said. "You have to hand it to him. What are you going to do?"

RAYS, VISALIA TEAM UP: Cam Bonifay, the Rays' director of player development and scouting, said he struck a two-year deal with Visalia of the California League to be Tampa Bay's high Class A affiliate. The Rays, whose deal with Bakersfield expired, would have preferred a team in the Florida State League and investigated options in Brevard, Fort Myers and Sarasota.

ODDS AND ENDS: Huff needs one home run to become the first Rays player to hit 30 in two seasons and two for 100 in his career. Manager Lou Piniella said lefty Scott Kazmir (sore callous on the middle finger of his pitching hand), threw on the side Friday, felt no pain and will start Monday. Catcher Brook Fordyce said his family is with him after evacuating their waterfront home in Stuart ahead of Hurricane Jeanne. The Rays' major league scouts will be in town beginning today for a meetings with general manager Chuck LaMar. Tampa mayor Pam Iorio threw out the first pitch. Hall of Famer Monte Irvin helped the Rays and the NAACP award a $2,500 scholarship to St. Petersburg High graduate Anthony Dudley.

_ DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times staff writer

OUTTA LEFTFIELD

Manager Lou Piniella said hitting home runs is not all about power. It is more a matter of bat speed, coordination, weight shift during a swing and keeping the bat through the hitting area; in other words, not pulling off pitches. "To hit the ball with power, you don't need to be bulky," Piniella said. "I don't think Hulk Hogan can hit 25 home runs."

TONIGHT: RAYS VS. BLUE JAYS

WHEN/WHERE: 6:15; Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg.

TV/RADIO: FSN; WFLA-AM 970.

PITCHERS: Jays _ RHP David Bush (4-4, 3.81), Rays _ RHP Dewon Brazelton (6-7, 4.58).

NOTES: Bush has won three of his past four decisions. His last victory was Sept. 18 over the Rays in which he pitched six innings and allowed two hits and one earned run in a 4-2 win. He is 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA against the Rays with seven walks and six strikeouts. Brazelton has lost his past three starts and Tampa Bay has lost the past five he started. He is 6-2 with a 2.30 ERA at the Trop and has allowed 57 hits in 74 innings with 38 strikeouts and 33 walks.

RAYS TICKETS: Available at the Tropicana Field box office, through all Ticketmaster outlets, online at devilrays.com or ticketmaster.com and at the Devil Rays Dugout store at WestShore Plaza in Tampa.

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

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