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Rays fail in clutch situations

O'S 6, RAYS 3: Greg Vaughn continues to slump, going 0-for-3 and stranding four runners in the loss to Baltimore.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Greg Vaughn talks a lot about how much better things will be once he starts doing what he can do.

The Rays can only hope he starts doing something.

As the Rays lost another game to the last-place Orioles on Saturday 6-3 and dropped to within a half-game of changing places at the bottom of the AL East, Vaughn's struggles have become increasingly magnified.

The 36-year-old designated hitter is the team's highest-paid ($8.75-million) and most accomplished player (a four-time all-star).

Through 16 games, he also has been its least productive, hitting .145 with no home runs, 5 RBIs and 18 strikeouts and being dropped from the cleanup spot.

"I make no excuses. I'm a man," Vaughn said. "Right now, I stink. I stink. But I believe it's going to change. In my heart, I know it's going to change. Just sooner would be nicer than later."

Saturday, he had three chances that could have kept the Rays and Paul Wilson from a frustrating defeat before another quiet Tropicana Field crowd of 11,402, about a thousand less than the Tampa Bay Storm arena football team drew for its opener at Tampa's Ice Palace.

But Vaughn struck out with two on in the first. He flied to deep left with a runner on third in the third for a sacrifice fly. And with the game in the balance in the eighth (two on, two out and the Rays down 4-3), he flied to the warning track in right.

For the night, 0-for-3 with four runners stranded.

"Right now, I've got to quit talking about it and just let it happen," Vaughn said.

"I'm trying to make it happen instead of letting it happen. It's just one of those things. Nobody's more frustrated about it than I am.

"Or more (angry). I've just got to keep battling."

There is no question the Rays could use the help Vaughn provides. Having his potent bat in the middle of their relatively light-hitting order makes opposing pitchers work harder and provides better opportunities for his teammates.

Manager Hal McRae, noting how hard Vaughn is working to correct what might be the most extended slump of his career, said there is reason for encouragement.

"He's missing some pitches that normally if he was swinging the bat well, he would connect on, but he's getting closer," McRae said.

For Vaughn, close is not enough.

"I just feel bad because the team depends a lot on me, and I'm not able to help out," Vaughn said. "If it was just affecting me, it wouldn't be as hard. But when you have a whole city and 24 other guys counting on you, it makes the situation a little tough.

"The fans in this city are trying to get excited about something, and I'm not helping out. These guys in here are busting their butts and doing everything they can, and I'm not contributing. That's the frustrating part."

It has been a frustrating couple of weeks for the Rays. Since sweeping the season-opening series against Detroit, they have lost 10 of 13 in what is the soft part of their schedule. Starting Tuesday, they play 17 consecutive games against teams with winning records and postseason chances.

"We have to learn to overcome mistakes," McRae said. "What I'm encouraged about is the fact that we're in these games and we're not blown away. It's tough to lose, but we have a chance to win each night."

The problem is they're not taking advantage of those chances.

"We're not picking each other up," McRae said. "That's the difference in winning and losing, a good pitch, a good play, a timely hit."

Paul Wilson, starting for the first time in 10 days because of shoulder stiffness, gave the Rays that chance with a decent outing.

He carried a 3-1 lead into the fifth. But he allowed a run on two two-out extra-base hits, a tying homer to Jay Gibbons leading off the sixth and the winning run on a two-out double by No.9 hitter Jerry Hairston.

Wilson said he felt fine, though a little rusty, allowing seven hits and two walks over six innings, throwing 101 pitches. "I battled myself all night to keep the ball down," he said. "I got into a lot of deep counts, hitters' counts. You can't do that."

After scoring three early runs, the Rays were shut down by former teammate Jason Johnson, who ended a nine-game losing streak that was the longest in the majors.

"I thought that was the difference; that they shut us down from an offensive point of view," McRae said.

Like Vaughn, they can only hope that today is a better day.

"When I do my part, it takes pressure off a lot of people," Vaughn said.

"I'm here early. I'm hitting extra. I'm doing my routine. I'm studying film. I think sometimes when you put your foot on the gas, you run into a wall. Right now, maybe, it's time to ease back and let it happen."

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