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Injury added to Rays' insult

With the trade deadline approaching, Albie Lopez was pitching Friday to pique the interest of a contending team. But midway through the top of the sixth inning, the story took an unexpected twist.

Lopez, perhaps the most tradable of the Rays' higher-priced veterans, was in the midst of a decent performance when he left the game after spraining his left ankle. While the injury appeared serious at the time, team officials say he should make his next start Thursday as scheduled.

Given the mandate from ownership to reduce payroll, the 4-1 loss to the Rangers seemed to be the less significant of the events.

Except that the loss dropped the Rays to the lowest point in their canyon-esque history, 37 games worse than .500 at 30-67. They had been at 36 on Thursday (30-66) and on the last day of the 1998 season (63-99).

The Rays' primary problem, in front of an announced Tropicana Field crowd of 13,611, was a continuation of their perplexing inability to deliver hits that produce runs.

In their past four games they have scored three runs. They have gone 3-for-32 with runners in scoring position. They have left 32 men on base. And they have lost four in a row. (Their ERA in that stretch is 2.83.)

"We're pitching our tails off but offensively we're not executing," manager Hal McRae said. "The guys just need to relax and play and try to get a good pitch and put a good swing on it and not concern themselves with the results but think more about the process."

The results were painfully obvious Friday. The Rays had men in scoring position in the first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings. But they produced one run, when Greg Vaughn singled in Damian Rolls in the fifth. No. 9 hitter Andy Sheets made the final out in four innings, singlehandedly stranding seven men.

"We're getting a lot of chances," Fred McGriff said. "Basically it's a matter of someone picking us up, but it's easier said than done. A guy comes up and he's thinking, "I"ve got to get a hit. I've got to get a hit.' You're trying hard because you know your team hasn't been scoring runs and you want to be the guy to get them going."

The Rangers got a run in the second on two doubles, and two more on back-to-back homers by Ivan Rodriguez, who has a .415 average against the Rays, and Ruben Sierra off Lopez in the sixth. "I felt okay," Lopez said. "I got beat on probably my fourth-best pitch. I gave up two home runs on two changeups."

The sprained ankle was the latest turn in what should have been a rewarding season for Lopez. Having established himself as a top-notch starter in the second half of 2000, Lopez was in line for a rich contract as a free agent after the season, as well as a reasonable chance to finish the year in a pennant race via trade.

But with a 5-12 record, a 5.34 ERA, and a swollen left ankle, the possibilities of a deal by July 31 seem slim. Or at least slimmer.

Lopez insisted he could have stayed in the game Friday. McRae, literally, wouldn't hear of it.

"I didn't listen to anything he had to say," McRae said. "He's too valuable to chance. He said he was fine and wanted to continue, but it fell on deaf ears. I mean, why chance it?"

Lopez started the year 3-1 and was leading the AL with a 1.66 ERA on April 24. Hampered by ineffectiveness and injuries to his groin and right thumb, Lopez then went 12 starts without a win, losing 10 consecutive decisions. Then he went 2-1 with a 4.26 ERA in his past four starts.

Then, with a half-dozen teams, including the Dodgers, Astros, Indians and Yankees, represented in the scouts' section Friday night, and another half dozen, including the Diamondbacks, A's and Red Sox, said to be interested, he left Friday's game after turning his left ankle on the delivery of his 92nd pitch.

He also felt a knot in his back, but said, despite how it may have looked, there were no problems with his arm.

Lopez says he'll be ready to try again on Thursday.

"There ain't no doubt in my mind," Lopez said.