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Road gets even harder for Rays

After a 13-game homestand that featured 10 against the Yankees, Braves and Red Sox, the Devil Rays get little reward: A six-game road trip against the top two teams in the American League West, including the best team in baseball.

The Rays open a three-game series in Oakland tonight against last year's Cy Young Award winner, Barry Zito. Then it's on to Seattle, home of the Mariners, who are a league-best 55-32.

"This is a tough little road trip," said Rays manager Lou Piniella, who will be going back to Seattle, where he managed for 10 seasons. "Oakland and Seattle are both good baseball clubs. Obviously we would like to finish up as strong as we can prior to the All-Star break."

Making it tougher for the Rays is that they'll face three left-handers in Oakland, and perhaps another in Seattle if Jamie Moyer pitches as scheduled Friday. The Rays are 7-13 against left-handers this season.

DOWN THE HALL: Catcher Toby Hall was behind the plate Sunday after sitting Friday and Saturday in favor of Javier Valentin.

And there was more to it than giving Hall a couple days' rest.

"We want to see Toby start swinging the bat better," Piniella said. "That's really the determining factor. He's fully capable of it. We just want to see it."

Hall goes into today's game with a .258 average, five homers and 23 RBIs.

HIT PARADE: Aubrey Huff is included on an impressive list. From July 19, 2002, until Sunday, only two major-league players had more hits than Huff, who had 198.

Boston's Nomar Garciaparra and St. Louis' Albert Pujols each had 209. Huff was just ahead of Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki (197), the Yankees' Alfonso Soriano (192) and Boston's Manny Ramirez (191).

ON BACKE'S BACK: The Rays have had a few pleasant surprises this season: the play of Rocco Baldelli, the resurgence of pitcher Victor Zambrano, the pitching of Jeremi Gonzalez.

The latest surprise, though, and perhaps the biggest, is the performance of rookie reliever Brandon Backe. In this, his second tour with the Rays this season, Backe has pitched 7 innings, allowing four hits and only one run. He has struck out six and walked two.

Backe, 25, pitched four innings of scoreless ball against the Yankees on June 24 and pitched out of a major jam against the White Sox on Friday by striking out two with the bases loaded.

"I feel comfortable in myself," Backe said. "I think (this) shows I belong up here. Just like everyone else, I feel like I belong here. This is a good team now. We're battling hard. We're losing tough games, but we're also winning good games. Right now we're on a roll, and hopefully it won't stop."

CLOSE CALLS: The Rays are on pace to play 101 games decided by two runs or fewer. Only six teams since 1900 have played 101 or more such games. The last was the 1971 Houston Astros.

_ TOM JONES

TONIGHT: RAYS AT A'S

PITCHERS: Rays _ RHP Rob Bell (0-2, 8.05); A's _ LHP Barry Zito (8-5, 3.12).

WORTH NOTING: Bell makes his fifth start since joining the Rays on June 14 from Triple-A Durham. He has won 16 games in the majors, and one came against the A's on June 24, 2001.

OUTTA LEFTFIELD

Devil Rays outfielder Jason Tyner never has hit a home run in 5{ seasons as a professional. What will the Rays do when _ or should we say, if _ Tyner ever does? "Fold," the Rays' Al Martin said. If Tyner's homer comes in the next few days, it won't be at the major-league level. He was shipped to Triple-A Durham on Sunday.

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