Calvin Pickering appeared to be showing up the Devil Rays, and Tampa Bay's fans didn't like it.
The Royals designated hitter seemed to take a long time getting around the bases after his eighth-inning, two-run home run. And though Pickering is a graduate of King High and resides in Temple Terrace, he was booed loudly as he crossed home plate.
But Pickering, who had the winning hit in Kansas City's 6-3 victory Monday night at the Trop, claimed innocence and said his turtle pace was because of his cramping left hamstring.
"I felt it on the swing before (the home run)," Pickering said. "It was lame, and then it cramped up."
Pickering hit Jorge Sosa's pitch high and to the opposite field and off the screen on the leftfield foul pole. It was Pickering's fifth home run and added to an already terrific season in which he batted .314 with 35 home runs and 79 RBIs in 88 games for Triple-A Omaha.
But Pickering knew how his home run trot looked.
"When it hurts the first time, 99 percent of the time it's going to do it on the next pitch," he said of his cramp.
"We must look like the most bootleg team in the whole world," winning pitcher Brian Anderson said. "We have a guy hit a home run. He's cramping and all 680 fans think he's trying to show them up."
RED-FACED SEASON: Julio Lugo said finishing last in the AL East would be "embarrassing." But even if the team finishes fourth for the first time in its seven seasons, the shortstop said it should have done better.
"We have a better team than we showed," Lugo said. "I don't know if we could have competed for second or third place, but I know we have a better team. For me it's embarrassing to finish in last. You don't want to tell your friends where you went up to."
Manager Lou Piniella said the team's stints in third and fourth place proved it made progress.
"That shows you the possibilities," he said. "What you see, basically, is a team that's not deep enough to play a 162-game schedule. But it goes to show you if you add to this thing, you can look for improvement.
Piniella called the schedule "cruel. If you have weaknesses and injuries and deficiencies they show up, and when they show up they start accelerating. And when you plug them with younger kids, you run into more of a problem because of the inexperience factor. That's what happened to us."
As for finishing in fourth, Piniella said, "I don't think it's going to make earth-shattering news one way or another in Tokyo, but we're going to try our darndest to stay out of the cellar."
NOTHING ON NIEMANN: The Rays were hopeful of getting first-round draft pick Jeff Niemann into the instructional league, but the league began last week without the unsigned pitcher.
Agent Casey Close said he is not scheduled to speak to Rays general manager Chuck LaMar, but he added it is "far too early to go into what the next step will be."
Close was talking about Niemann possibly re-enrolling at Rice, which the right-hander led to the 2003 NCAA title. Still, Close called it an "option to be kept open."
ODDS AND ENDS: Piniella said he expects Scott Kazmir to start Friday. Kazmir left Sunday's game, in part, because of a sore lump on the middle finger of his pitching hand. The lump remains. Kazmir called it "weird" but said he believes he will pitch. Lugo's first-inning error gave him six errors in six games. Tampa Bay has made 46 errors in its past 40 games to drop from fourth to 12th in the league in fielding. Aubrey Huff, who has homers in consecutive games, needs two to be the first Rays player to hit 30 in two seasons. With the season over for Triple-A Durham, manager Bill Evers and pitching coach Joe Coleman joined the Rays. "Most of their guys are here anyway," Piniella said. The Rays have lost five straight at Tropicana Field.
_ DAMIAN CRISTODERO,
Times staff writer
TONIGHT: RAYS VS. ROYALS
PITCHERS: Royals _ RHP Zack Greinke (8-10, 4.20), Rays _ RHP Rob Bell (7-8, 4.88).
NOTES: Greinke faces the Rays for the first time. He has won six of his past eight decisions. In his past nine starts, he has allowed 21 earned runs in 54 innings for a 3.46 ERA. Greinke is 2-5 with a 5.17 ERA and a .282 opponents batting average in nine road starts. Bell has won two of his past three decisions with the last one, Sept.
11 against the Royals, coming out of the bullpen. He is 2-0 with a 3.74 ERA in six appearances, including five starts, against Kansas City.
Someone brought to Rays manager Lou Piniella's attention that his team, despite losing 9-7 Sunday to the Blue Jays, outscored the Bucs, who lost 10-6 to the Seahawks. But Piniella went one better. "Out-defensed them, too," he joked. But mindful of the Rays' three errors in their game, he added: "I shouldn't say out-defensed. We allowed less points. But nine's a lot in baseball."