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ALL'S WELL UNTIL THE BULLPEN STRIKES

The Sox roar after Jason Hammel hits his pitch count.

Jason Hammel did all he could. Or, more precisely, all he was allowed to.

The 24-year-old right-hander gave the Devil Rays exactly the kind of start they needed Friday to snap their latest losing streak, holding the mighty Red Sox scoreless and to one hit into the sixth.

But he didn't get the chance to finish what he started, removed from the game as he tired approaching a strict 90-pitch limit.

And that was pretty much the beginning of the end as Juan Salas replaced Hammel and allowed a three-run homer, and the Rays quickly stumbled to an ugly 7-1 loss.

The Rays have lost seven straight (and been outscored 71-21 along the way), 11 of 15 since the All-Star break and 24 of their past 29. They are a major-league worst 38-64 overall and on pace to finish 60-102.

"(Hammel) pitched very well to very good hitters. That was a great effort on his part," manager Joe Maddon said. "He pretty much had had it at that point. We just couldn't let him go any deeper than that."

Hammel, who retired the first 11, left after walking consecutive batters with one out in the sixth, the final pitch his 88th. Hammel acknowledged on the mound he was tired - "He was gassed. He admitted it pretty much in those words," Maddon said - but insisted later he would have relished the chance to keep going.

"Definitely," Hammel said. "Any time I put my guys on, I want to make sure if they come in, it's under my account. ... It was tough to see (Maddon) come out because I knew I was done at that point."

Maddon pointed to the bullpen and, as usual, bad things happened.

Salas, who just rejoined the Rays after a 50-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, threw a ball, a strike and a ball then a pitch that Youkilis crushed.

"I wanted to give him a crucial moment," Maddon said. "The other guys have had their opportunities in the crucial moment, and obviously, it hasn't been tremendous."

The usual split-loyalties crowd of 33,144 responded with a roar, and it was impossible to tell if more were yelling Yooouuuk! to cheer the home run or Booooo! to jeer Maddon's decision.

The move illustrates how the Rays try to balance developing for the future and winning in the present. Because Hammel, who was transitioning back to starting after an unsuccessful bullpen audition, hadn't had an extended outing since mid June, the Rays were committed to being cautious, and Maddon said there was no way he'd let him exceed the 90 pitches, especially when he was tired.

"That's when you can get hurt," he said.

Similarly, he said it also was "a developmental decision" in choosing Salas with the game in the balance.

"He has to learn how to get out of those moments," Maddon said.

With the Rays leading 1-0 early - the only time in four games they've been ahead of the Sox - it looked like they might avoid another loss to knuckleballing nemesis Tim Wakefield. Instead, he beat them for the 17th time (the most of any pitcher) and improved to 8-0 with a 2.33 ERA in 18 games in the controlled environment of the Trop.

"I like pitching here," Wakefield said.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

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