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Rays continue free fall

The sky is not crashing down on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It only seems that way.

The Rays lost their fifth straight on Tuesday afternoon, going down 4-3 against the Athletics. And that was not even the loudest crash at Tropicana Field. A light was shattered by a foul pop in the eighth inning, dropping broken glass along the third-base line and leaving players to duck for cover.

If there is a metaphor in the episode, the Rays don't see it.

"If we were getting beat 8-1 every night, maybe we'd be more worried. But we've been in every game and we can turn this around," shortstop Kevin Stocker said. "No one is pointing fingers. No one is making excuses. We're not hitting and we admit that. Now we have to go on."

A week ago, the Rays were a model expansion franchise. Winning close games, winning on the road, winning more than any first-year team in April.

Now they are seeing how the other half lives. They are two games under .500 for the first time. They are in a season-high five-game losing streak. They have lost their first three one-run games _ all in the past three days.

"A lot of things that were happening earlier for us are now going the other way," manager Larry Rothschild said. "There will be an even-ing out."

For instance, the Rays had shown resilience in the season's first couple of weeks, coming from behind to win several games. Yet Tampa Bay has had an early lead in each of the past four games but has not held on.

In Monday's 7-6 loss, the Rays failed several times to get runners home from third with less than two outs. It happened again Tuesday, before a season-low crowd of 25,138, when Miguel Cairo popped out with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh.

"Our pitchers have kept us in games the whole year, so you feel bad for them because we're not getting the big hit," said Paul Sorrento, who failed to get a hit with runners on base in all four at-bats Tuesday.

Tampa Bay hitters came into the homestand on a bit of a high, having scored 12 runs in the finale of a road trip in Texas on Thursday. Yet, over the next five days, they scored a total of 14 runs.

And if Fred McGriff were not around, the Rays would have been completely punchless. The first baseman hit his fourth homer in five games on Tuesday and raised his RBI total for the homestand to nine.

"It'll be nice when we don't have to talk about Freddie being the offense all the time," Rothschild said.

While the hitting has gone south, the pitching isn't exactly blameless. Making his second big-league start, rookie Jason Johnson labored through the first inning _ leaving the bases loaded _ and never seemed to find his groove after that.

Staked to a 1-0 lead on Mike Kelly's first-inning double, Johnson and the Rays fell behind two innings later when Oakland got a run-scoring double from Matt Stairs and a run-scoring groundout from Jason Giambi.

An inning later, Johnson gave up back-to-back home runs to rookie Ryan Christenson and Rickey Henderson. It was Christenson's first big-league homer.

"I had the same problem I did the other day, too much adrenaline," said Johnson, who pitched into the sixth inning of his first start and got the win against the Rangers. "I have to learn to control it. I got too excited and started shaking. My hands started sweating. I didn't have control because of it."

Johnson was lifted with one out in the fifth after giving up a double to catcher A.J. Hinch, despite having thrown only 89 pitches.

"The stuff was there. I think he got tired quicker than I thought he would," Rothschild said. "He didn't throw the curveball for strikes."

The bullpen thrived where Johnson did not. Eddie Gaillard, who was sent back to Triple A after the game, pitched 1 innings of hitless relief. Ramon Tatis and Esteban Yan combined on three more shutout innings.

Tampa Bay cut the lead to 4-3 in the fourth when McGriff led off with a homer to rightfield and Kelly followed with a double. Kelly went to third on a Sorrento grounder and Bobby Smith drew a walk. When Smith was caught in a rundown after a pickoff, Kelly scored from third.

The Rays did not score again, although they had chances.

Tampa Bay loaded the bases in the seventh after a leadoff single by Smith and walks to Stocker and Quinton McCracken after a John Flaherty sacrifice bunt. With a chance to drive in a run with a sacrifice fly, Cairo popped out in foul territory along the first-base line.

Oakland brought in left-handed reliever Buddy Groom to face Dave Martinez, so Rothschild countered with right-handed pinch-hitter Jerome Walton. Working the count full, Walton hit a sharp line drive to leftfield, right at Henderson.

"I'm going to be the right-handed bat off the bench, so I wanted to show Larry I can be his guy," Walton said. "I hit it hard, but it was right at Rickey. It's frustrating, but these things even out."