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Demolishing a dandy debut

Demolishing a dandy debut By JOE SMITH

Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG - Manager Joe Maddon might call the bullpen's recent funk a "hiccup" or a "bump in the road."

But the unit, one of the best in the American League earlier this season, is in a significant slump at the worst possible time for the Rays , who hit the road for a 10-game trip with their playoff hopes slipping away like the games they seemingly had in their grasp the past two days.

Sunday, Maddon took his matchup-style bullpen to another level, using five relievers to get the final three Detroit outs - but not before Brandon Inge's grand slam lifted the Tigers past the Rays 5-3 and spoiled an impressive major-league debut by Wade Davis before 28,059 at Tropicana Field.

The right-hander said he was calmer than he thought he'd be while giving up just one run and striking out nine over seven innings.

But the hard-thrower left the Trop empty-handed, and Edwin Jackson picked up the win in his first start against his former team since being traded in December. He lasted eight innings, then benefited from the Rays' bullpen meltdown.

"That's a tough one," Maddon said. "When you have a lead and you can't hold leads late, that's part of the game that's most difficult to endure."

It has been an all-too-familiar script for the Rays . The bullpen has taken the loss in each of the past three games and has blown a major-league high eight saves (out of 12 opportunities) in the past 28 games. In that span, the defending American League champs have dropped from 11/2 games behind the Red Sox for the wild card to seven with 26 games to play.

"It's a real bad time for us to have these things happen," Ben Zobrist said.

The Rays (72-64), having lost eight of their past 11, left the Trop in suits on the "all-business" leg of their road trip to face the red-hot Yankees, and the bullpen is searching for answers.

"I think it's just a lack of belief," left-hander J.P. Howell said. "We have the confidence. We just got to believe."

"Frustrating," Grant Balfour said. "Very frustrating."

Said pitching coach Jim Hickey: "You're struggling a little bit, and it just becomes contagious. And you start to look around a little bit and kind of wonder, 'Am I next?'??"

Maddon has used his relievers based on matchups all season - he went to the bullpen 29 times during the six-game homestand - and he defended doing so again in the ninth Sunday.

Lance Cormier relieved Davis to start the eighth and retired four of his five batters. But Maddon had it planned before the ninth that Cormier would pitch to one batter because he liked Balfour against Miguel Cabrera and Howell against the next hitter, Marcus Thames, pinch-hitting for Aubrey Huff.

Maddon said Cormier was pitching well but he would have taken him out anyway for Huff, who was 4-for-7 against him.

Balfour and Howell walked their batters. And Russ Springer, pitching for the fifth straight day, gave up hits to the only three batters he faced, including his first slider of the inning that Inge ripped 414 feet. The homer hurt, but Maddon said the two walks turned the game around.

"We had a plan, and it didn't work out," Cormier said. "But how many times have the moves (Maddon) made worked out? Everyone is going to talk about that one move, but he's managed like that the last two years, and it works."

Just not lately.

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Added: September 7, 2009

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