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Lights out for Rays? Not so fast

Not to say things are going poorly around here, but exactly what is the infield fly rule when giant shards of glass are plunging like daggers from the ceiling?

This is what it has come to. The lasting image of a game is now that of Kevin Stocker, standing by the coach's box at third base, his arms over his head to prevent impending impaling. And that of Bobby Smith, turning his back and walking away as glass rained down onto the turf behind him from that pesky part of the stadium known as That Darned Catwalk.

It is a hard thing to define, exactly when a team has hit a rough patch. But it is fair to assume that standing in the middle of a glass hailstorm is one of the early warning signs.

This is baseball's idea of symbolism. The Rays, like the light bulb that was shattered by a popup off the bat of A.J. Hinch, spent most of their early season with the power on, basking in all the energy, enjoying how bright everything appeared. After Tuesday, however, both appear to be lying on the ground with someone sweeping up the small pieces.

The Rays lost again. For the fifth straight time in a five-game homestand. For the seventh time in eight games. For the third straight time by one run. Now, where did we pack away that "expansion" adjective? Turns out we aren't done with it after all.

There is no reality quite as harsh as being swept in back-to-back series at home by a pair of teams that can best be described as ordinary. When it occurs, it usually reveals a few unpleasant truths along the way.

With the Rays, there is this: They had some hitting this homestand, but not enough. They had some pitching, but not enough. And they're going to win some more games. But not enough.

They lost a game to Cecil Fielder's speed and a game to Rickey Henderson's power. They lost when their expensive starting pitcher (Wilson Alvarez) was horrible and when their expensive closer (Roberto Hernandez) was worse. They lost when they misunderstood relentless on the basepaths to mean reckless. They botched leads, they blew comebacks. They lost to bad luck and bad play.

Most of all, they lost.

Deep down, most people suspected this was coming. The early success felt more like a hot streak than it did the arrival of a powerhouse, and it was fantasy to think it would last. It hasn't.

Over the past eight games, the team's batting average has fallen from .318 to .294. When runners are on base, it gets even worse. Rumor is a Rays runner has been on third since last Wednesday, only no one has bothered to get him home. The team's earned-run average, first in the American League eight days ago, is now eighth and has risen from 3.95 to 4.58. After two dozen games, it gets easy to notice most of the wins came against Chicago and Detroit, also-rans of an also-ran Central Division.

"I don't think we're going to fade away," said outfielder Dave Martinez. "I just think we're in a slump right now."

Right now, a slump sounds like a good word. If you pull for the Rays, you are praying this is a slump.

We will learn much about the Rays in the days to come. Frankly, so will they.

"When things were going well, I would tell people we wouldn't really find out about this team until we hit a rough spell," shortstop Kevin Stocker said. "This is a big road trip for us."

"We're going to learn who is going to battle and who is going to give in a little bit," catcher John Flaherty said. "You find out a lot of things about character when a team isn't going very well."

There is some truth to that. Too many teams seem to accept their fate and just ride it out. You get the feeling this one won't do that.

Still, it would help if character could get a two-out hit every now and then.

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