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Saunders starts strong but fades by 101st pitch

What do you say to the pitcher who gets no run support and loses a one-run game?

"Sorry, pal, tough luck!"

Now, what do you say to the pitcher who has a five-run lead, appears to be on cruise control, then watches as his chance of victory evaporates into Tropicana Field's controlled air?

"What more you want, baby?"

Maybe Devil Rays starter Tony Saunders (1-2) has an answer.

After holding the Oakland Athletics hitless through the first two innings and scoreless going into the fifth, the Rays' top pick in the expansion draft ran out of gas, gave up five runs on five hits and five walks and bowed out with no chance of getting the win Monday. The A's scored twice in the ninth to pull off the 7-6 win.

"He was looking very sharp at first," Athletics manager Art Howe said. "But we got to see him and then put some things together and that was that."

Added the A's Jason Giambi: "At first, nobody on this team had really seen him, and he was throwing well, but maybe he tired a little bit. Maybe that's why he was getting the ball up in the zone."

But Rays catcher John Flaherty said Saunders' problems weren't from fatigue but from mechanics.

"I know he was not tired because he was throwing real well," Flaherty said. "But there was a mechanical problem with his delivery. I really don't know how that happens."

The infield paid for Saunders' frustration as he twice kicked the dirt on his way back to the dugout after being pulled by manager Larry Rothschild. But the dirt had nothing to do with it.

Saunders, who was making his fifth start and 26th of his career, simply may have thrown too many pitches. In five innings, Saunders logged 101 pitches (59 for strikes). Was 101 too much?

"I don't know; you just have to ask him," Rothschild said. "He doesn't need any sympathy."

The former Florida Marlin, who three times beat the Atlanta Braves last season, was dominant early in the game. He retired the side in the top of the first and had his first cushion in the bottom of the inning thanks to a two-run homer by Fred McGriff.

The hard work began in the third. Saunders gave up his first hit, a single to Scott Spiezio, then walked catcher Mike MacFarlane. He struck out Ryan Christenson,then walked Rickey Henderson to load the bases.

He got out of the inning without giving up a run by striking out Kurt Abbott and forcing Ben Grieve to fly out to leftfield.

McGriff gave the Rays _ and Saunders _ a healthy five-run lead in bottom of the third when he hammered a Mike Oquist pitch into the left-centerfield stands for a three-run homer, his second of the game.

But after a scoreless fourth, Saunders' fears came to life. The A's sent nine to the plate, scored five runs on four hits and two walks.

Considering the five-run lead, Saunders' crumble was particularly painful. In his first four starts, the Rays scored 15 runs but managed only two combined in his two losses (3-0 to Chicago on April 4 and 2-7 to Texas on April 22).