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Rays' worst first: slump

In this season of historic firsts, the Devil Rays are experiencing another one. Their first extended slump.

The Rays lost for the fourth time in five games Saturday, falling 7-1 to Anaheim before a Tropicana Field crowd of 33,395.

"It was going to happen eventually, even if you're the best team in the history of baseball," manager Larry Rothschild said. "You're going to go through some of those. I expect these guys to respond the same way they have all year, and just keep going at it, and we'll be fine."

The challenge is to come out of it quickly. Aside from strong pitching and timely hitting by their opponents, the Rays say there is no common thread to their struggles.

"I don't think there's any one thing you can point at," Rothschild said. "It's just overall."

Nor is there any cause for concern.

"Not that I can see," shortstop Kevin Stocker said. "We ran into two hot teams that were swinging the bats well. We're not playing poor defense and our pitching's been okay. I don't see it yet.

"You know you're going to lose some games and go through little spots. Now it's time to see the character of this team."

They can show it in a big way tonight when they make their first national television appearance in an 8:05 game against the Angels. They step in front of the ESPN cameras at 11-10, matching the 1969 Royals for the best record for a first-year expansion team through 21 games.

The pieces for victory seemed to be there early Saturday. Strong starting pitching by Rolando Arrojo (2-2). Nifty defense. Some (but not enough) offense.

Even the first tangible benefit of their home-dome advantage, a run saved when a sure homer by Anaheim's Jim Edmonds turned into a double when it bounced off an outfield catwalk.

But five-hit pitching through 7 innings by Anaheim's Ken Hill (4-1) and a five-run Angels eighth inning which broke open a 2-1 game was too much.

In the four losses (two at Texas, two to Anaheim), the Rays have been outscored 28-6 and held to 29 hits. After averaging .332 and scoring 6.6 runs per game at home, they managed just a .238 average and four total runs for the past two nights. Saturday's seven hits and one run were home season lows.

"We've faced some pretty good pitching," Rothschild said. "But we hit so well for a pretty good period of time, you can't expect that all year. You're going to have to win some games 3-2 and 2-1. That's how you have a good year, by winning games like that, as well as the other ones."

When the Rays don't score heavily, they don't win. They are 0-8 in games in which they have scored less than four runs.

Rothschild said the Rays have good enough pitching to win those kind of games. For the most part, Arrojo was good enough on Saturday in his fifth major-league start.

Aided by some flashy defense, the former Cuban national team ace had allowed just one run through four innings (on a single by Cecil Fielder, who had been in a 7-for-62 rut) and two through six (on a home run by Dave Hollins, who had been 0-for-11).

"I thought he threw the ball very, very well," Rothschild said.

But the Angels, who got to .500 by winning their third straight, put together a five-run eighth and put the game out of reach.

A Gary DiSarcina single and a Darin Erstad triple finished Arrojo. Reliever Jim Mecir came on and gave up a two-run double to Fielder and a two-run homer to Garret Anderson, the first runs Mecir has allowed in 11 appearances.

Arrojo wasn't as sharp as last Sunday, when he shut out the Angels for seven innings. But he was pleased.

"Even though we lost I felt that I did a good job, and Larry told me I did a good job which inspires me," Arrojo said through a team interpreter. "I battled a little bit with the catcher today (over pitch selection). But I'm happy and I learned something."

Arrojo continues to have trouble with left-handed batters _ they were 7-for-18 against him Saturday _ and for the season has allowed a .400 average and three homers. Right-handers have hit .267 with no homers.

Hill was even better, keeping the Rays off-balance most of the night with a nasty split-finger fastball. After the Rays scored in the third inning, on a well-executed sequence where Kevin Stocker led off with a ground-rule double, Mike DiFelice bunted him to third and Aaron Ledesma drove him in by hitting the ball to the right side, Hill went 15 batters without allowing a hit.

"He mixed up his pitches and really limited what we could do," Quinton McCracken said.

The Rays are hoping the struggles are short-term. McCracken said he thought they were a little flat. "You go through some stretches where you can't seem to put anything together," he said. "Not to make any excuses, but the travel the last two weeks kind of took its toll."

"All in all," outfielder Dave Martinez said, "we're still doing pretty well."

Hitting the skids

First slumps of expansion teams:

Team, year Before Slump After

Angels ('61) 1-0 0-8 1-8

Senators ('61) 3-4 1-7 4-11

Colt 45s ('62) 6-5 1-6 7-11

Mets ('62) 0-0 1-12 1-12

Royals ('69) 15-12 1-8 16-20

Expos ('69) 10-15 1-22 11-37

Padres ('69) 3-0 1-8 4-8

Pilots ('69) 3-1 2-8 5-9

Mariners ('77) 6-7 3-17 9-24

Jays ('77) 5-2 2-6 7-8

Rockies ('93) 10-15 2-17 12-32

Marlins ('93) 1-0 1-6 2-6

Rays ('98) 10-6 1-4 11-10