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This cloud has a silver lining

The Devil Rays' recent funk, which threatened to tarnish the best expansion start, obviously was not a good thing.

But it wasn't all bad either.

In the big-picture perspective of GM Chuck LaMar and manager Larry Rothschild, a rough stretch can be just as integral to the long-term evaluation process.

"I think you learn more about yourself and more about your club when you go through tough times," LaMar said. "This is a very easy game, it seems, when things are going right and everything is firing on all cylinders.

"It's truly when you have tough times, when everyone's not performing as they like to, that you actually grow as a club. And the more one-run games and the more tough situations you can go through, the better off you'll be when it really counts."

The first month is easy to divide: the 10-6 start and the 2-8 finish. Except for those disparate results, Roths-child said, the team has been close to what he expected. But the learning process will continue all year.

"I don't think you get to know a team and get to know the players until you go through tougher times," Roths-child said. "It's easy to come to the park when you're hitting .350 and it looks like everything's great. When you're hitting .200, can you come and give the same type of effort? That's when you find out about players."

So far, they like what they see. "It's how we weather storms like this," LaMar said. "And if we weather them like we have so far, then we're headed in the right direction."'

CHECKMATES: Chess has become a popular pregame diversion for several Rays, and the scouting report is that Rich Butler is no mere pawn. Butler ran off about 20 wins before being beaten by Mike DiFelice. "A lot of the guys are just learning," Butler said. "I played a little bit, but I'm not that good."

WAIVING HELLO: Expansion rules gave the Rays first crack at the AL waiver wire for the first month, and they took advantage. For just $20,000, a mere pittance by big-league standards, they picked up reliever Eddie Gaillard, who showed he can help them at the big-league level, and starter/reliever Julio Santana, who should be able to. "We're not trying to outsmart the other organizations," LaMar said. "It's a chance to stockpile young arms."

HOW'S THAT?: Maybe the rest of the AL isn't ready for the Rays. During the two-game series in Minnesota last week, the Twins PA announcer called Rolando Arrojo "Luis" (which is his given name) and Miguel Cairo "Me-GWELL KA-ro" (which is not his given name). The scoreboard ran Bobby Smith's name with a picture of what looked like Dwight Smith. "I'm calling him Luis from now on, too, if it means he'll throw a shutout," Rothschild said.

IN RETROSPECT: The 10-6 start did a lot of good things, but it also heightened fans' expectations, making what was a reasonably predictable rough stretch seem like a harsh dose of expansion reality. "I thought it created a lot of expectations, but that's fine," Rothschild said. "The expectations don't bother me. And if that generates fan support, that's even better." Rothschild said he wouldn't have wanted to start slow, then make a good run. "If you get off to a bad start, the pressure mounts a lot more because that's what you're evaluated on, that's what's showing," he said. "Right now the fact that some guys are going through tough times, their averages are really averaging out."

DOUBLE UP: This week's trip to Kansas City will be the fifth of the team's 21 two-game series, 10 of which are on the road. "I don't think anyone likes them," Rothschild said. "You never really get settled in anyway."

AAA-APPROVED: The Rays have some what-you-might-call-experienced players at Triple-A Durham. The roster includes RHP Mark Eichhorn, who's 37; 1B/DH Russ Morman, 36; and C Bob Natal, 32 _ all former major-leaguers there to provide insurance in case the Rays lose a key player to injury. Ultimately, LaMar would like to have a much younger group there. "We've got a good nucleus of veteran players at the Triple-A level, some of whom could be called up. But in the long run you want as many young players as you can get at the Triple-A level. You want young players. I want 23 of them."

WELL-PLANNED: Rothschild and the Rays are nothing if not prepared. Rothschild said he usually makes out his lineup three or four days in advance, as soon as he knows who is pitching for the other team. "A lot of times I stick with it," he said.

ROCK THE VOTE: All-Star ballots should be available at Tropicana Field starting Friday. Voting opens Monday with ballots supposed to be available at Wal-Mart and CompUSA stores and Pizza Hut restaurants, as well as on the Internet at www.majorleaguebaseball.com.

HOO-RAYS: Plans are progressing to build a stadium in Tallahassee for the Rays' Double-A team, which plays currently in Orlando. 1B Fred McGriff tied the April expansion record for home runs with six (Frank Thomas, 1962 Mets) and was second with 24 RBI (Colorado's Andres Galarraga had 25 in 1993). Managing general partner Vince Naimoli said there are several inexpensive solutions to guard against any more lights breaking at Tropicana Field, and the matter will be addressed. Cairo traded an autographed bat for first home run on Monday.

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