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Rays tiptoe out of slump

The Devil Rays were smiling again Thursday.

The six-game losing streak that had savaged their past week was over, the enveloping pressure gone with it. They didn't play their best game, but they played well enough to win. And the way things had been going, that was the most important thing.

They won because they scratched out two runs, and they won because Rolando Arrojo wasn't going to let them lose.

Arrojo was nothing short of magnificent as the Devil Rays beat Minnesota 2-0 before 8,860 at the Metrodome. The former Cuban national team ace allowed just three hits, all to Todd Walker, in delivering the Rays' first complete game.

"You can put any superlative you want on it," manager Larry Rothschild said. "He knew what he wanted to do today and he did it. It looked to me like he accepted the fact that he wanted to put an end to the streak, that he was going to be the guy to do it."

The Rays kept saying they were due for some breaks and a change in fortune. After a week in which they couldn't seem to find their way home, they won when they scored one run on a double-play grounder and the other on a wild pitch.

"Sometimes," second baseman Miguel Cairo said, "you win games like that."

While the streak had not reached traumatic proportions _ several Rays insisted there was no panic and that media reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated _ Rothschild said he had noticed the players putting too much pressure on the themselves and trying to do too much.

He also thought some were starting to feel sorry for themselves, and he told them as much in a meeting after Wednesday's game.

"I'm relieved because now these guys can just go back and play the way they're capable of," Rothschild said. "Even in today's game you could see there were times we tried to do too much. Everybody tried to win the game with one swing and execute something that wasn't really there."

Shortstop Kevin Stocker said it was akin to being under water for five minutes, then racing to the surface "and getting that big breath." DH Paul Sorrento said "it felt good to hear some music" in the clubhouse, which traditionally is kept funeral after losses.

Even though it included miscues, Thursday's matinee win made it all better.

"Hopefully a game like this will free us up a little bit and we can get back rolling," catcher John Flaherty said.

The Rays loaded the bases in the second with no outs against LaTroy Hawkins but got only one run. Bobby Smith hit into a double play, allowing Fred McGriff to score, and Stocker struck out.

They had first and second with no outs in the fifth, but Cairo _ swinging away when a bunt play had been called _ hit into a double play. They salvaged a run only when Hawkins bounced an 0-and-2 pitch to Rich Butler and Stocker raced home.

The Rays left runners on second and third in the fourth. Sorrento got doubled off second in the sixth. Cairo failed on a squeeze bunt in the seventh, actually running into the ball. Tampa Bay left 11 on base for the day, including six in scoring position.

"We did not execute very well offensively today, and we had chances," Rothschild said.

Arrojo was good enough to make up for it. He faced just 30 batters and the only runner to reach second was Walker on a two-out double in the sixth. Arrojo struck out five, walked two and seemed in control from start to finish.

"Today I was amazed because I had good control and wherever I wanted to throw the ball, I threw it right there," Arrojo said through a team interpreter.

The Rays had lost eight of nine. The losing streak threatened to obscure their 10-6 start, the best in expansion history.

Thursday's win gave them 12 for April, two more than any other first-year club. At 12-14, the Rays share the second-best record through 26 games.

Just as the Rays enjoyed their fast start, Rothschild said the losing streak had its tangential benefits too.

"You're going to go through these during the course of a season," he said. "This is the first time this team has gone through it. Now they came out of it with a win today. You're going to be tested. I don't care who you are, you're going to go through tests. This is just another one."

The road doesn't get any easier. The Rays open a three-game weekend series tonight at Cleveland, home of the defending American League champions.

"That will be a tough test of where we are as a squad, and I'm looking forward to it," Flaherty said.

With a smile, of course.

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