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SCOUTING REPORT: The Royals have been playing better lately, going 8-9 in September, but still have the worst record in the American League.

They rank among the bottom three in the league in pitching, hitting and fielding, a significant step backward from the progress they showed last season with an 83-79 record. They need to go 9-5 to avoid losing 100.

Injuries and inconsistent performances have been the biggest problems. The Royals have 10 players on the disabled list, including star Mike Sweeney. As a result, the Royals have used 58 players, most in the majors.

Shortstop Angel Berroa, who struggled early after winning the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year Award ahead of Rocco Baldelli, has been hot lately, as has third basemen Joe Randa.

CONNECTIONS: Royals infielder Calvin Pickering is a King High graduate. GM Allard Baird attended St. Petersburg Junior College. Rookie pitcher Zack Greinke is from Apopka. Rays manager Lou Piniella won the AL Rookie of the Year Award for the Royals in 1969. Special assistant Hal McRae was a star player and manager in Kansas City. Lance Carter and Rey Sanchez are former Royals.

SEASON SERIES: The Rays lead 5-1, including a three-game sweep July 27-29 at the Trop, guaranteeing only their second winning season against Kansas City. The series is 28-28 and 14-14 at Tropicana Field.

_ MARC TOPKIN, Times staff writer