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BOTCHED PLAY SETS TONE FOR MORE FRUSTRATION

Shortstop Brendan Harris drifted back, then turned to watch. All-Star leftfielder Carl Crawford charged in and stopped short.

The two-out popup dropped to the green grass in shallow leftfield, and though it was only the first inning Wednesday, the Rays' chances to snap their latest losing streak went down with it despite a solid start by rookie Andy Sonnanstine.

The inexcusable miscue - on a play manager Joe Maddon said has to be made "100 out of 100 times" - provided the first two runs in the Orioles' 6-1 victory. The Rays (38-62) reached the 100-game mark having lost five straight, nine of 13 since the All-Star break and 22 of 27.

And it's obvious the frustration is mounting.

"Definitely," Crawford said. "We're starting to lose every game."

Most evident was when B.J. Upton stood at the plate and jawed with umpire Tom Hallion after a called third strike that ended the third, then Maddon came out to continue the argument and hitting coach Steve Henderson yelled enough - in either quantity or quality - from the dugout that he ended up being ejected.

"It's a moment of frustration and, you know what, we just have to keep fighting through it," Maddon said. "It's a long season. There's a lot of games left to play. We've got to right ourselves and do this thing the right way, and do not let these negative elements take hold of us. We can not let it happen."

Maddon suggested the Rays were still staggered by the residuals of their woeful weekend in New York, "fatigued" despite having Monday off. "We've got to get our energy back," he said.

Some close calls by Hallion led to Sonnanstine's first back-to-back walks in 60 major-league innings, and the miscommunication on Ramon Hernandez's two-out popup and a broken-bat blooper by Jay Payton that produced a third run followed, but Sonnanstine didn't waver.

He allowed four hits and two runs over the next five innings, dueling nearly even with Orioles ace Erik Bedard and earning raves from Maddon despite an eighth straight winless start that dropped him to 1-6, 5.57.

"Andy was wonderful," Maddon said. "We're at the point where we expect that all the time. You expect him to be there for six or seven innings, you expect you're going to have a chance to win. It doesn't matter who he's facing."

But there wasn't anything Sonnanstine or anyone could do on the first-inning foulup, a play Maddon described as "Popup Coverage 101.'' And there wasn't a clear explanation, either.

"It wasn't a difficult play,'' he said. "We have to make that play.''

Maddon said neither Crawford nor Harris went hard enough for it and - as any Little Leaguer is taught - if there is any doubt, it's the outfielder's ball.

But Crawford didn't take the blame, saying they were going hard and it wasn't necessarily his ball - "You can't really say whose ball it is'' - but just "one of those things'' because neither player called it. And Harris said he was expecting Crawford to take it but admitted he should have stayed after it.

"The way things are going," Harris said, "we can't let a ball like that drop."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.

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