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This may seem familiar

WHITE SOX 5, RAYS 2: After a fine Seth McClung outing, the bullpen gives the game away.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published May 18, 2006

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Reliever Ruddy Lugo waits with Josh Paul to be pulled during Chicago's three-run eighth.

ST. PETERSBURG - Sitting in his office after Wednesday's disheartening defeat, manager Joe Maddon said he remained confident, optimistic and determined that the Devil Rays can come up with a workable combination of late-inning relievers.

But the task, he admitted, has been more difficult than he thought.

And, based on the looks and sounds around the quiet Devil Rays clubhouse after the game, perhaps more frustrating, too.

After a strong seven-inning start by Seth McClung and a spectacular diving catch and 14th home run by Jonny Gomes, the Rays put the game in the hands of the bullpen.

And once again it backfired, as the White Sox broke an eighth-inning tie with three runs off rookie reliever Ruddy Lugo and went on to a 5-2 victory.

"We're still trying to define the bullpen and put people in specific roles, and it's still difficult to try to get that done," Maddon said. "There's too much vacillation in regards to performance."

After 40 games, which is roughly a quarter of the season, Rays relievers have a 5.97 ERA that is among the worst in the majors. They have allowed opponents a ridiculous .320 average. They have given up runs in 16 of their 19 games, losing six.

When Tyler Walker, plucked off the Giants' discard pile, took over the closer's job, Maddon was confident Lugo had done well enough that he could handle the eighth-inning setup role.

But then Lugo came on Tuesday and allowed all four batters he faced to reach base as the bullpen gave up six runs in the eighth inning and nearly blew a 10-1 lead.

And then he came in Wednesday and, while getting two outs, gave up two costly walks and two even more costly hits, a single to Jermaine Dye and a double to A.J. Pierzynski, to turn a 2-2 tie into a frustrating loss.

"The relief is a puzzle we're still in the process of figuring out," Maddon said. "We thought we were getting closer to it and then it just goes away a little bit. We'll stay positive with these guys and get them over the hump."

Tuesday, Lugo said the problem was a lack of focus because of the lopsided score.

If he had an explanation Wednesday, he wasn't sharing as he left the clubhouse before the media was allowed in, though a one-out walk to Tadahito Iguchi and a two-out walk to Paul Konerko, after being ahead in the count 0-and-2, were big parts of his problem.

"One of our big problems all year has been the walk, and it haunted us again tonight," Maddon said.

As usual with the Rays, it's always something.

The offense has been in a prolonged funk and, despite some signs of life Tuesday, didn't do much Wednesday. The only runs came on homers by Greg Norton and Gomes, and the Rays got only two hits over the last five innings.

And they continue to make occasional small mistakes that cost them big-time. Outfielder Joey Gathright, who failed to get down a sacrifice bunt in the fifth, did a poor job setting up under Dye's sixth-inning sacrifice fly to shallow center and was unable to prevent Scott Podsednik from scoring the tying run.

"We came out and we made a lot of mistakes," Gathright said. "We just have to correct them."

Meanwhile, the starting pitching has been strong, with McClung the latest to turn in a quality start and get nothing for it.

"It's not just with this game," Travis Lee said. "There's discouragement because a lot of guys in here aren't doing well. Every loss stinks, but a loss is really bad when your pitcher gives you seven innings and holds them to two runs."

Gomes - who joked that his fully extended diving catch was "right out of Carl Crawford's book; I was posing like his action figure" - said it was frustrating. Gathright said the Rays have to learn from their mistakes. Norton said the Rays need to get all facets of their game working.

And Maddon remained confident that they would work through their latest struggles, and said he planned to keep Lugo on the job.

"We're going to stick with him," Maddon said. "I think the best thing is to keep trying to figure this out and keep throwing them out there. ... That's the best we can do right now. Just keep throwing them out there."

[Last modified May 18, 2006, 01:57:40]

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