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Rays can't close it out

First the Devil Rays blew a five-run lead Monday. Then things got really ugly. Closer Roberto Hernandez gave away a one-run advantage in the ninth inning as the Rays lost to Oakland 7-6.

Hernandez, who has struggled in each of his four save opportunities, came in to protect a 6-5 lead. But he walked pinch-hitter Matt Stairs, Rickey Henderson and, after a Kurt Abbott popup, rookie Ben Grieve, in a tremendous 11-pitch at-bat, to load the bases.

Designated hitter Kevin Mitchell, who had one RBI coming into the game, delivered a two-run single to put the A's ahead for good.

"This was a bad one," 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. (Monday) I felt like we gave it away."

The Rays took a 5-0 advantage behind two home runs by Fred McGriff, but starter Tony Saunders couldn't hold the lead. They went back up 6-5 when Miguel Cairo homered in the fifth, but wasted excellent scoring opportunities in the sixth and seventh before losing in the ninth.

"I ruined a perfect outing for the other guys," said Hernandez, who blew his second save in four chances. "The one thing you can't defense is walks."

The Rays seemed headed to an economical win as their first three hits were home runs.

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.

The Rays, held to five runs and four extra-base hits while losing three straight to Texas, struck quickly against Oakland's Mike Oquist.

With two outs in the first, Dave Martinez drew a walk and McGriff, the hometown slugger acquired from Atlanta for a mere $20,000, drove a 3-1 pitch over the leftfield fence.

It was Rays' first home run in a 25-inning stretch dating to the first inning of Friday's game.

McGriff struck again in the third inning in similar circumstance. Cairo and Martinez were on base following two-out walks and McGriff crushed Oquist's 3-2 pitch into the rightfield seats.

Those were the only two hits Oquist allowed through the first four innings.

It was the 30th two-homer game of McGriff's career and gave him 344 overall, pushing him into the top 50 on the all-time list.

McGriff continued his march toward the best April of his career. In 1996 with Atlanta, he batted .337 with six homers and 28 RBI. With three games remaining, he is batting .362 with five homers and 23 RBI.

Saunders, the No. 1 pick in the expansion draft, had a frustrating and short night. He was sharp enough to strike out seven of the first 17 batters he faced, but erratic enough to walk five and lose the five-run lead McGriff had handed him. He threw 101 pitches and didn't make it through the fifth inning.

"I'd like a little more out of him," manager Larry Rothschild said.

Saunders survived one early jam. He loaded the bases on a single and two walks with one out in the third but struck out Dixie Hollins High product and former Marlins teammate Kurt Abbott and retired Ben Grieve on a fly to deep left.

But the left-hander was done in by a five-run Oakland fifth when he allowed six consecutive batters to reach with one out.

Ryan Christenson singled and Rickey Henderson walked, then Abbott delivered a run-scoring single. Grieve walked to load the bases, and Mitchell drove in the second run. Rothschild allowed Saunders to stay in and face the left-handed hitting Jason Giambi. It might have been one batter too long, as Giambi ripped a two-run single to right.

Albie Lopez relieved and pinch-hitter Dave Magadan, a Tampa native, greeted him with a sacrifice fly to tie the score at 5.

Cairo seemed to save the day in the bottom of the fifth, when he hit his first major-league home run, a solo blast to left with two outs.

The Rays wasted a tremendous opportunity in the sixth when they had runners at second and third with no outs against reliever Mike Mohler and left them there. McGriff walked and DH Paul Sorrento ended a 2-for-20 skid with a double. But Bobby Smith flied to short left, Rich Butler (in a 3-for-30 slump) grounded to first and John Flaherty (0-for-his-last-14) grounded to third.

They failed again in the seventh with two on and one out. Martinez moved the runners to second and third with a rightside grounder and McGriff was intentionally walked, but Sorrento grounded to second.

After the Rays failed, Oakland's Abbott had a final chance to be a hero. He came up with the tying run on second and the go-ahead run on first in the ninth after Hernandez walked two, but swung at the first pitch and popped out. Grieve, a favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year award, battled back from an 0-2 count to draw an 11-pitch walk that loaded the bases and set the stage for Mitchell.

After Mitchell singled in two, Hernandez walked another batter and was relieved by Ramon Tatis, but the damage was done.

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