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ALL'S WELL UNTIL THE PEN 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 into the sixth.

But in an illustration of how the Rays try to balance developing for the future and winning in the present, he wasn't allowed to finish what he started, removed from the game as soon as he approached the 90-pitch limit.

And that was pretty much the beginning of the end as the Rays stumbled to an ugly 7-1 loss.

The Rays have lost seven straight, 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.

Just when it looked like the Rays had stumbled into something with Hammel, a call to the bullpen ruined another night.

It's easy to blame manager Joe Maddon, but the Rays were committed to the strict pitch limit because Hammel was making his first extended appearance since mid June.

He had just walked ex-Ray Julio Lugo with his 88th pitch, putting men on first and second with no outs.

"That was a great performance on his part,'' Maddon said.

"He pretty much had it at that point.''

Maddon's choice of Juan Salas, his latest hope for at least some relief, could be debated, but it's not as if he has had a lot of success with the other candidates.

"I wanted to give him a crucial moment,'' Maddon said.

But ...

Salas, who just rejoined the Rays after serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, threw a ball, a strike and a ball then left a fat pitch over the plate that Kevin Youkilis crushed for his 10th homer.

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 the decision to replace Hammel with Salas.

After deciding Hammel wasn't working out as a reliever, the Rays let him work four innings in an abbreviated start in Game 1 of the July 21 doubleheader and planned to send him to Durham to make a comfortable transition back to starting.

But after seeing J.P. Howell struggle immensely in his start in Game 2 of the doubleheader (creating a hole in the rotation), and reliever Jay Witasick get hurt (allowing Hammell to be brought back without the mandatory 10-day waiting period), the Rays decided to give Hammel an opportunity to go directly into the big-league rotation.

They didn't make it easy, sending him out to try to break their six-game losing streak while facing a Red Sox team that features a powerful and patient lineup. But Hammell handled himself pretty well.

He retired the first 11 batters, not allowing a hit until David Ortiz rolled a grounder to right with two outs in the fourth.

The Rays took a 1-0 lead against knuckleballing nemesis Tim Wakefield (who is now 8-0 at the Trop and has beaten the Rays 17 times, the most of any pitcher) in the second with a two-out rally. Ty Wigginton, the subject of trade talks with the Red Sox and others, singled to left. Jonny Gomes walked, and Dioner Navarro singled.

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

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