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Year 1 for Rays is far from blown

You invite Roberto Hernandez to a fire, he shows up with kerosene.

When the Devil Rays get good pitching, their batters are prone to malfunctions in the runners-in-scoring-position clutch.

In games when Tampa Bay's offense generates six or eight runs, fortunes of the mound too often deserve the title A Farewell to Arms.

For any baseball team, especially an expansion tyke, these are factors that lead to predictable slumps.

After beginning their inaugural season with an unexpectedly grand 10-6 record, the Rays ingloriously were sobered by losing 11 of the next 13. Expect no sympathy from Arizona, where the Diamondbacks dropped 23 of their first 30.

Easily the most painful Tampa Bay failure was Sunday's regurgitation in Cleveland, with calamitous closer Hernandez blowing a three-run lead in the ninth.

We need, every few days, to re-philosophize about our new Tropicana toy. This isn't like following studly Yanks, Indians or Braves or even scrape-by Cubs, Phillies or Tigers. Tampa Bay's ride, like Arizona's, is cause for unique analysis.

This morning, let's remind ourselves that D-Rays highs in the American League crib never are going to be quite as legitimate as they may seem. Conversely, the disasters of manager Larry Rothschild's infant squad will not be as murderous as they may appear. Even with high-priced fireman Hernandez looking more like a firebug.

It would be worse, far more desperate, if the Rays were being clobbered unmercifully night after night. If no Tampa Bay starting pitcher ever lasted five innings. If nobody was batting .270-plus.

It is, in a way, a measure of accomplishment that opponents from Cleveland, instead of snickering at Tampa Bay ineptitudes, celebrated the 10-8 comeback as though it were a World Series conclusion.

All summer, through occasional highs and repetitive lows, there will be a far bigger Tampa Bay question: How does Rays talent, as well as the franchise's master plan, make us feel about the season of 2000 and beyond?

Most games are entertaining, at least in part. Even some that became excruciating for Tampa Bay. My eyes see no shortage of hustle, my ears detect no sourness of athlete attitude.

What we have is a flower garden. Still in the planting and fertilizing stages. We find a bloom here and there. Like a Rolando Arrojo shutout. Or a Fred McGriff game-winning homer. Also a few weeds. But the character, mentality and abilities of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays barely have begun to grow.

We should tend, with demands.

Too many Rays baserunners are thrown out, but I admire Rothschild's aggressive intent. If it comes with more common sense, a rise in productivity is assured.

More than half of Tampa Bay's lineup is hitting .300 or higher, better than I would ever have dreamed. But while the Rays ranked a shocking No. 3 in AL team batting average before Monday's games, they were a sickly 12th in runs scored. Leading the league in wasted offensive possibilities.

Opponents with more of a celebrity air are about to appear at Tropicana Field. Baltimore comes in for the weekend, followed by Cleveland. We keep looking for blossoms. Perennials. We are fearful of weeds.

Oh, about Hernandez ...

This is not Alvin Harper, who mixed a shortage of Bucs football performance with an abundance of personal arrogance. Always blaming factors other than himself. Hernandez is an up-front guy. A proud pro. Rich, for sure. But a ballplayer who cares.

Rothschild will try a new late-innings bullpen mix. Anything to jar Hernandez. Despite the game-stealing grand slam by Sandy Alomar in that 10-8 dose of Rays nausea, Hernandez's most ghastly devil has been a stunning inability to throw strikes.

It would be nonsense to do anything but trust Rothschild will find a cure. Anything that allows Hernandez to find the strike zone again.