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IF RAYS WANT HIM, AKI HAPPY TO STAY

2B Akinori Iwamura would like to stay with the Rays.

With his original three-year contract up and the Rays unlikely to pick up his $4.85 million option (instead paying a $550,000 buyout), Iwamura, under terms now common for Japanese players, will be a free agent after the season.

But Iwamura, 30, indicated Thursday that he'd have interest in talking with the Rays about a new deal at a lower price.

"I love this team, and I love the Tampa area," Iwamura said through interpreter Bori Uchibori. "My son was born in Tampa, and my wife's getting used to Tampa and starting to like it. So of course I'd like to stay."

Iwamura said he hasn't thought much about the negotiating process, preferring to focus on the final weeks of the season, and will wait for his agent to hear what Rays officials have to say.

"The team has the option, not me, and everything's in the team's hands," he said. "That's where I'm at right now."

Iwamura has started 13 games since coming back Aug. 29 from June surgery on what was thought to be a season-ending knee injury, playing well and feeling good. But he's hitting only .239, compared with .310 before the May 24 injury.

"To be honest, a week or two after I came back I was afraid what was going to happen to my knee from pounding it every day, that maybe it would swell up or get fluid inside, but that didn't happen," Iwamura said. "It's been feeling really good, and I have no worries right now."

Minor matters: Triple-A Durham won the International League championship with a 3-2 12-inning victory at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees). The Bulls scored twice in the eighth to tie, then went ahead when Elliot Johnson singled with one out and John Jaso doubled him in. The Bulls survived two walks and an error to close it out and win the organization's 10th minor-league championship.

Running on empty: Manager Joe Maddon acknowledged Thursday what others have suggested - that at least some of his players were worn down, or out.

"Basically some just ran out of gas," he said. "It just came down to fuel. That's the part that's frustrating, but nevertheless I thought we played at a very high level for a long period of time this season. April caught us, and September caught us - it's really, it's something to think about."

The bullpen seemed clearly spent, but Maddon said it wasn't just them.

"I think we all did," he said. "I'm not just going to blame relief pitchers. I think as a group we did. You talk about some of those close games we lost late; we had a chance to score more runs, too. We put a lot of pressure on the latter part of the game. Whereas last year we reacted to that and won those games, now this year almost the same set of circumstances and we've lost those games.

"And it really to me promotes or indicates the fine line between winning and losing in Major League Baseball and the American League East."

Limited duty: Consider heavily used relievers Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell on restriction for the rest of the season, likely to be let out of the bullpen only on limited occasions.

"You're not going to see me just bring them in like we would during the regular season," Maddon said. "I'm going to back them off a little bit, yes, but not shut them down.

"I want these people to finish mentally strong going into the offseason, knowing that they're fine, everything's all right."

CF B.J. Upton didn't start Thursday, and other position players likely to get a rest, or at least a DH day, include LF Carl Crawford, SS Jason Bartlett and RF/2B Ben Zobrist.

Miscellany:CF Fernando Perez left the game with a sore left wrist (the same one he had had spring surgery on) after running into the wall making a spectacular catch; the Rays said it's not serious. ...Pat Burrell offered a polite "no comment" when asked about Wednesday's pregame confrontation with Crawford. ... Maddon said they'll decide today on setting up the rotation around next week's two off-days. ... Little consolation to RHP Russ Springer after giving up the game-ending homer, but his Wednesday appearance earned him a $50,000 incentive bonus based on appearances.

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