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Wallace working the numbers

The numbers are beginning to stack up in Jeff Wallace's favor. Both on the mound and in the clubhouse.

After a solid performance Thursday against the Red Sox, Wallace returned to a clubhouse that was less crowded than the day before.

Left-hander Paul Spoljaric was reassigned to minor-league camp, leaving Wallace one of four left-handers still around.

"I'm confident," Wallace said. "But, by no means, am I comfortable."

It is hard to be left-handed and comfortable in Rays camp these days. In their ever-evolving search for left-handed relief help, the Rays brought in 10 contenders this spring. Six have been cut in the past nine days.

Tampa Bay manager Larry Rothschild would like to keep two left-handers in the bullpen, but said he would not hesitate to carry one if he does not see enough worthy candidates.

Doug Creek is the only holdover from last year and seems to be a good bet to reclaim his spot. That leaves Wallace and rookies Trevor Enders and Bobby Seay as candidates for what may or may not be an opening for a second left-hander.

Wallace, 24, had a strong rookie season with the Pirates in 1999, but struggled last year. He was waived in December and signed by the Rays as a minor-league free agent in January. Wallace showed up three weeks early for spring training to work with pitching coach Bill Fischer and said he has corrected mechanical flaws in his delivery.

Having missed his first scheduled outing because of a rainout, Wallace made his second appearance on Thursday in a 7-1 loss to Boston. He relieved Ryan Rupe with a runner on second and two outs and struck out Brian Daubach. Wallace pitched 2 innings of one-hit ball, striking out four. The only drawback was a pair of walks to left-handed hitters.

"You're starting to see more empty lockers every day," Wallace said. "I think I can do the job, but so does everyone else. Nobody wants to go back to Triple A. We all want to be pitching here."

RUPE'S RUT: After a subpar performance by Rupe on Thursday, Rothschild said it was too early to assume anyone has a spot in the rotation.

Rupe came into camp as the projected No. 3 starter, but has compiled the weakest numbers of any contender. Rupe has a 7.27 ERA and has given up 13 hits and four walks in 8 innings.

"Nobody is just going to be handed a spot on this team," Rothschild said. "Command of pitches will make a difference. Overall, he's had pretty good command, but as he gets stretched out, it will tell more and more."

Rupe said his location was off and it got him in trouble.

"I got into some hitters' counts, made some bad pitches and gave up some hits," he said.

TOUGH DAYS: Josh Hamilton began the spring with three hits in a row, but since has been quiet. The former No. 1 pick is 0-for-16 since his first start, although he said he still feels good at the plate.

"I've been hitting the ball hard, but it's been right at people," Hamilton said. "That's the kind of thing you can handle. I'll be all right."

MORE CUTS: Along with Spoljaric, infielders Andy Sheets and Mike Caruso were reassigned to minor-league camp and right-hander Sean Bergman was released.

Of all the left-handers, Spoljaric, 30, had the most experience in the bullpen role. He has averaged nearly 40 appearances with four clubs since 1996. He was 1-1 with a 4.50 ERA in four innings this spring.

"We're getting to the point in the spring where starters are getting extended and there are fewer and fewer innings," Rothschild said. "He'll have the opportunity to get more innings (in minor-league camp) and if they tell me he's throwing better, I won't hesitate to bring him back."

The Rays have done that in the past, recalling left-handers Mike Duvall and Jim Morris late in the spring.

Bergman, attempting to make the team as a minor-league free agent, was hit hard in his few spring appearances. A starter with the Astros during their division-winning season in 1998, Bergman gave up six earned runs in three innings. Opponents hit .500 (9-for-18) off him.

_ JOHN ROMANO

QUOTABLE

"Frustrated? Nah, I'm a happy-go-lucky guy."

_ JOSH HAMILTON

when asked if he was frustrated after his slump reached 0-for-16 in Thursday's 7-1 loss to the Red Sox

Join our WHO-RAY contest ...

DAY 28: Which Rays player led the majors in home runs during the first George Bush administratioin?

Keep an eye on ...

Infielder Damian Rolls, trying to win a job as a utility infielder, gets the start at third base. With the team leaving for Mexico City after the game, a lot of regulars are getting the afternoon off.

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