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Slammed

This one hurt.

More than any of their previous 16 losses, this one stung the Devil Rays. They had played well Sunday, perhaps as well as they had all season. They had a three-run lead over Cleveland, they had their closer on the mound and they had confidence. "The game was ours," DH Paul Sorrento said.

Then it happened. Again. What was once unthinkable is becoming commonplace. Roberto Hernandez struggled, turning another victory into defeat. Head-shaking, mind-numbing defeat.

Hernandez gave up a two-out grand slam to Sandy Alomar in a five-run ninth inning as the Indians rallied for a 10-8 victory before 42,597 at Jacobs Field.

Alomar's blast, on a 2-2 pitch, was the final shocking blow, but Hernandez precipitated the damage by allowing four of the six previous batters to reach base.

As a result of his repeated struggles, the free agent signed to a four-year, $22.5-million contract temporarily lost the closer's job. Manager Larry Rothschild said Hernandez will be used in non-pressure situations in an attempt to get him straightened out.

"We had the game in hand, and we didn't take care of business," said Sorrento, who helped the Rays to an early 6-0 lead with a grand slam in a four-hit, six-RBI day. "That happens in baseball, but obviously up to this point it's probably our toughest loss. It's something we can't dwell on. We can't let it affect our game Tuesday (at Kansas City). We've just got to blow it off, as difficult as that might be to do."

When the Rays snapped a six-game losing streak Thursday, they thought they had put their bad stretch behind them. But they were swept three straight by the defending AL champion Indians and have lost nine of their past 10 and 11 of 13. It seems a lot more than two weeks ago that they were 10-6 and setting records for expansion teams.

"This one is pretty tough to swallow," outfielder Dave Martinez said. "Especially when you're struggling. That magnifies it so much more. It's frustrating."

The Rays appeared to have broken out of their offensive malaise and took an 8-5 advantage into the ninth. Hernandez, who had blown two of his first four save opportunities and had allowed 28 of 60 batters to reach base, seemed to be in good form. He came in with two on and one out in the eighth and escaped that jam quickly.

The ninth was a different story. Unfortunately for the Rays, it turned into the same old story.

Lake Wales' Pat Borders led off with an infield single, and David Bell followed with a double off the leftfield wall.

Still, there was hope. Hernandez got infield outs on the next two pitches, keeping the runners where they were.

He might have had the third out when David Justice bounced a 1-0 pitch through the middle. Hernandez stuck out his bare hand and deflected the ball, enough so that there was no play, allowing Justice a run-scoring hit.

Hernandez said that had he not touched the ball, shortstop Kevin Stocker could have made the play and ended the game. "I made three perfect pitches in a row," Hernandez said, "but my reflexes just took over and I knocked the ball down. Those are the breaks when you're going bad."

Stocker wasn't as sure. "That's a big what-if," he said.

Either way, Borders scored to cut the lead to 8-6. Hernandez then walked left-handed slugger Jim Thome, putting the winning run on base.

That brought up Alomar, who enjoyed a magical 1997 season but had been struggling and was in an 8-for-60 slump when the Rays came to town.

Alomar worked the count to 2-2, fouled off a couple of pitches, then reached down for a slider and sent it caroming off the rail just above the 19-foot leftfield wall, carrying the Rays' hope for victory with it.

"When you get down to the last pitch, you need to make one pitch," Rothschild said. "It didn't happen today."

Hernandez initially couldn't believe he had lost. "I didn't think it was gone," Hernandez said. "I was just hoping it would be a routine fly ball. He hit it with one hand. But when you're going bad in situations like that, every little break goes against you. "You try to make your pitches. I tried. I did my best. There was one instance there where we were almost out of the inning if it wasn't for my hand."

The loss wasted an encouraging offensive performance.

The Rays took a 6-0 lead, behind Sorrento's first-inning run-scoring single and third-inning grand slam, plus a homer by Bobby Smith on the next pitch. But the Indians chipped away with two homers off rookie starter Jason Johnson and two more runs off relievers Jim Mecir and Esteban Yan.

But when Hernandez got out of the eighth and the Rays tacked on two more runs in the ninth, victory seemed all but assured.

"That ranks as the toughest (loss) in my book, in my whole career," Hernandez said. "To come in in a situation with first and second and one out in the eighth and get out of there and then see your team score two runs, it should be sufficient. In any league."

No saving grace

Blown saves is not the category you want to lead, but over the past three seasons, nobody has done it more frequently than Ray ex-closer Roberto Hernandez.

Player BS Saves

Roberto Hernandez, Rays 29 103

Rod Beck, Cubs 25 114

John Franco, Mets 23 98

Todd Worrell, Dodgers 22 111

Dennis Eckersley, Red Sox 21 95

Trevor Hoffman, Padres 21 117

Heathcliff Slocumb, Mariners 21 90

BLOWING . . .

BLOWN SAVE 1 (4/13): Rays lead Twins 11-10 as Roberto Hernandez enters for save in 9th. But three hits, one walk and two runs later, the Rays trail 12-11.

BLOWING . . .

BLOWN SAVE 2 (4/27): Rays lead A's 6-5 as Hernandez starts 9th. He walks the bases loaded and gives up a two-out, two-run single for an eventual A's win.

GONE!

BLOWN SAVE 3 (5/3): Hernandez escapes bases-loaded jam in 8th and has an 8-5 lead in 9th. But a two-out grand slam by the Indians ends his role as closer.

Lost, but not forgotten

The Devil Rays didn't blow a lead and lose until their 18th game, a 7-2 loss at Texas on April 22. However, they have had leads in seven of their past eight games but have held on to win only once. Here is how those seven games turned out:

Date Opponent Rays lead(s) Result The skinny

4/25 Angels 1-0 after 3 Lost 7-1 Arrojo, Mecir

allow five-run eighth.

4/26 Angels 1-0 after 2 Lost 2-1 Springer gives up

runs in third and sixth.

4/27 Athletics 5-0 after 4, 6-5 after 8 Lost 7-6 Saunders allows

5-run fifth, Hernandez 2-run ninth.

4/28 Athletics 1-0 after 2 Lost 4-3 Johnson allows

2-run fourth, 2-run fifth.

4/30 Twins 2-0 after 5 Won 2-0 Arrojo pitches

complete-game 3-hitter.

Fri. Indians 4-0 after 3{ Lost 7-5 Springer rocked

in 5-run fourth.

Sun. Indians 6-0 after 3, 8-5 after 8{ Lost 10-8 Hernandez

yields Alomar grand slam in ninth.

BY THE NUMBERS

3: Number of times the Rays have given up leads of at least four runs in the past week.

5: Runs scored by the Rays in the third inning, their most prolific since the sixth on April 13.

23: Number of walks by Rays pitchers in the three games.

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