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Hernandez can't close it out against A's

First the Devil Rays blew a five-run lead. And that wasn't even the worst thing that happened Monday night. Closer Roberto Hernandez, the man hired to absolutely, positively put away games like this, instead gave it away in a frustrating ninth inning.

Hernandez walked the bases loaded and then allowed a two-run single to Oakland's Kevin Mitchell, turning what should have been a fortunate one-run victory into a disheartening 7-6 defeat.

"This was a bad one," Rays catcher John Flaherty said. "This game right here, we needed to win. It was just a bad loss. If you get beat, you get beat. You go home and go to sleep. Tonight, I felt like we gave it away."

The Rays took an early 5-0 lead behind two home runs by Fred McGriff, the 30th two-homer game of his career. But starter Tony Saunders couldn't hold the lead, allowing the A's to tie the score with a five-run fifth.

The Rays went back up 6-5 in their fifth on Miguel Cairo's first major-league home run but wasted excellent scoring opportunities in the sixth and seventh, and lost it in the ninth.

"This is major-league baseball; these things happen sometimes," manager Larry Rothschild said. "We have to be able to put games like that away at the end. But you know we'll put our share away. Roberto will turn this thing around and he'll be fine."

The Rays have lost a season-high four straight and six of seven. They fell to 11-12, the first time they have been under .500 since Opening Day.

Adding to the malaise: Attendance was a Tropicana Field season-low 25,484, the Rays' third crowd under 28,000 in the past four nights.

Hernandez has struggled in all four save opportunities, converting two and blowing two, and has a 5.06 earned-run average. He has faced 54 batters and allowed 24 to reach, 13 by walks.

Monday he said he felt fine, that his arm is sound and that he had good stuff.

Said Rothschild: "You can talk about the stuff, but you have to be able to use it."

The Rays signed Hernandez to a four-year, $22.5-million contract just for these kind of games. "It's a situation you want to be in, to have a lead and give the ball to Roberto in the ninth inning," Rothschild said. "That's why he's here."

Hernandez couldn't explain the problem. "At this point, no. The arm strength is right where I want it," he said. "Unfortunately today I couldn't even find the strike zone. I just blew the game."

Flaherty said Hernandez had good velocity (the stadium radar gun clocked him as high as 98 mph) and excellent movement on his pitches. "He's just missing by a lot right now," Flaherty said. "We need to figure out what it is with Roberto."

Adding to the confusion: Hernandez pitched a perfect ninth against Anaheim on Sunday, retiring the side on six pitches. Monday, he threw 32 and had to be relieved by Ramon Tatis.

Hernandez retired his first batter, then walked pinch-hitter Matt Stairs, Rickey Henderson and, after a Kurt Abbott popup, Ben Grieve, in a tremendous 12-pitch at-bat by the 21-year-old rookie, to load the bases.

"The at-bat Grieve had was as good an at-bat as you're going to see," Rothschild said.

Mitchell, 36, who was signed midway through spring training, then bounced a ball through the middle to score two runs and put the A's ahead for good.

Earlier, the Rays looked as if they were going to stay ahead. Saunders, the No.

1 pick in the expansion draft, was sharp enough to strike out seven of the first 17 batters but erratic enough to walk five and lose the lead. He threw 101 pitches and didn't make it through the fifth, allowing six straight A's to reach base.

"With a 5-0 lead in the fifth inning, I would have looked for a little more out of him," Rothschild said.

Even after Saunders gave up the lead, the Rays had chances. Leading 6-5, they had runners on second and third with no outs in the sixth but stranded them when Bobby Smith, Rich Butler and Flaherty went down in order.

"Just to get one of those runs," Rothschild said. "And they were giving them to us, the infield was back. All you had to do was play pepper with the middle infielders."

Then they had runners on second and third with two out in the seventh, but A's left-hander Mike Mohler intentionally walked the left-handed McGriff and got Paul Sorrento, in a 3-for-22 slump, to ground out.

"There's no way we should lose this game," Flaherty said.

Roberto Hernandez's stats for first ten appearances not provided for electronic library. Please see microfilm.