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Piniella certain dark days will end

Lou Piniella expected to be awake at 5 o'clock this morning.

The Devil Rays manager said it has been that way the past six weeks as his team struggled to win, and to keep the flicker of hope burning for the 70 it has never attained.

"My mind keeps working. Maybe it shouldn't," Piniella said. "I mean, I'm up. I hear the newspaper dropped on my door. Maybe I should be delivering the damn thing."

What Piniella delivered before Wednesday night's game against the Red Sox was hope.

It wasn't a wide-eyed, out-of-proportion vision of the future but one that looks a heck of a lot better than the team's first seven seasons, during which the burning question has been if it can avoid last place.

"It's going to get better," Piniella said. "Before my two years are over here, it's going to get better, a lot better. I honestly see it on the horizon.

"The problem is it's been seven years, but you can't look at it that way. You've got to look at it that this thing here is slowly starting to come together."

It was the second straight day of positive news concerning Piniella, who has been beating back speculation from New York that he would flee the last two years of his four-year deal to manage the Mets.

His agent, Alan Nero, was upbeat about Tuesday's meeting with top Rays officials concerning the team's direction. Piniella said Nero reiterated those sentiments to him. The manager apparently just wanted to pass them along.

The message came with caveats. Piniella, who will make about $8-million in the final two years of his contract, said he expects next season's onfield payroll will increase from a major league-low of $23-million. Still, an extremely young team must mature. And, boy, wouldn't a couple more veterans make that process smoother.

"But that said, is there still a bright future here? Yes, there is," Piniella said. "I say that because the past two years I've been here, we've had the smallest payroll this organization has had, and that's going to start increasing slowly.

"And we have some talented kids who are gaining valuable experience. So the combination of a steady growing payroll and more experience and better play from our younger kids, you're going to start seeing the end result of this."

It can't happen too soon for Piniella, so successful managing the Yankees, Reds and Mariners and whose .528 winning percentage entering this season was fifth among active managers.

But after Wednesday's 9-4 victory over the Red Sox at Tropicana Field, Piniella is 130-188 with Tampa Bay.

"When I came here I thought I could win with just about any team I managed," he said. "I've come to the conclusion that I'm wrong. It's humbling to lose. You learn so much more by losing than you do from winning. I certainly don't want to get too damn smart in old age."

Piniella correctly pointed out Tampa Bay's improvement the past two seasons, but he said he expected more.

He said he wishes the team would "accelerate the process" of expanding payroll and improving the roster. But that's because "you're competitive and want to win."

In the end, though, he said the focus should be on him.

"I don't pass blame," he said. "If anything doesn't work here, I point the finger at myself. I'm not going to point it at the organization. I'm the one who's responsible. That's why they brought me here.

"I've got talent to work with, and I've got to get the best out of it and I've got to win as many games as I'm capable of as a manager. That's the way I look at it, and that's why I take it seriously."

Like his vision of the future.

"I don't think I've forgotten how to manage the last two years," Piniella said. "I was brought in here to win and you've got to be realistic. But at the same time, over the next two years we have to do better than we've done the first two."

Better than waking up at 5 a.m.