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Rays give O's the brush-off, finish sweep

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The wind wasn't blowing out at Tropicana Field yesterday, though with motor-mouthed basketball analyst Dick Vitale sitting beside the visitors' dugout, the air flow could shift inside a dome.

Those were legitimate home runs being hit off Orioles starter Rick Helling, every bit as real as the possibility that he won't stay in the team's rotation through the end of the month.

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Three more batters cleared the fence against Helling yesterday, two in the first inning, and Travis Lee doubled off reliever B.J. Ryan in the 10th inning to give the Tampa Bay Devil Rays a 6-5 victory before 9,022, capping a three-game sweep over the Orioles.

Rookie Rocco Baldelli singled with one out before Lee, who tied Monday's game with an eighth-inning homer, lined a pitch toward the left-field corner.

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Tony Batista's relay arrived late, and the last-place Devil Rays had their first sweep over the Orioles since 1999.

The Orioles never should have left Boston, where they won three of four games against a team that rarely loses at Fenway Park. Any momentum generated from the first half of their road trip was scattered in small pieces across the Trop's fake grass, trampled by outfielders racing after fly balls they had no chance of catching.

"We expected to at least get to .500," said outfielder Larry Bigbie, after the Orioles fell to 57-62. "It's really disappointing to come here and lose all three. The first one is bad enough, but you figure, 'OK, let's get the next two.' But day by day, you lose another and lose another."

The Devil Rays had been out-homered here, 74-38, before Aubrey Huff, Lee and Toby Hall fiddled with the numbers during Helling's five innings. Huff and Lee hit fastballs left over the plate in the first inning, and Hall jumped on a hanging curve in the fifth.

"Rick got bit by the home run bug," manager Mike Hargrove said. "He's been bit all year."

Helling has surrendered 10 homers in his past three starts and 30 for the season - most in the American League before last night. Seattle's Ryan Franklin (28) and Anaheim's Jarrod Washburn (27) pitched on the West Coast.

Signed to a minor league contract over the winter that paid him $1 million after he made the club, Helling has two victories since June 24 and no assurances that left-hander Eric DuBose won't replace him.

DuBose had made two quality starts in as many opportunities, and didn't allow a run in his first five relief appearances until Lee hit a two-run homer off him during Monday's loss. Rick Bauer, also an intriguing possibility, was 3-1 with a 2.42 ERA in seven starts at Triple-A Ottawa.

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Asked if Helling will get the ball in five days, Hargrove said, "We'll talk about that when we get back. That's a question that needs to be answered a couple days from now."

Because Helling apparently has cleared waivers, he could be traded by Aug. 31, when teams must set their rosters for the postseason. But his value isn't soaring.

"The first two innings, I made a lot of bad pitches," said Helling, whose ERA climbed to 5.71 in 138 2/3 innings. "I'll be the first to admit if I'm making mistakes."

Hall was off-balance on his swing, catching the ball on the barrel and having enough strength to drive it 353 feet down the left-field line.

"It happened to go out of the shortest part of the park. That's just bad luck," Helling said. "It seems like when you're in one of these stretches like I'm in right now, everything's going against you."

Helling allowed 31 homers last year with the Arizona Diamondbacks, tied for second in the National League. He served up 38 the previous year with the Texas Rangers, and 41 in 1999. But he's always made his starts when healthy.

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"I've been doing this for a long time," he said, "and I've had rough stretches in my career before, and no one has ever taken the ball away from me."

Helling, who retired 10 of 11 batters after Lee's homer, described his confidence level as "still wavering."

"There are some guys who tell you they never lose belief in themselves. If they're telling you that, they're lying," he said.

"This game is the most humbling. You have one good start and you're on top of the world, and for five days you get to hear about how great you pitched. You have one really bad start, and the next five starts, you hear how you should be released.

"It seems like every mistake I make is hurting me, and even some of the good pitches I make are hurting me."

Bauer tossed 3 2/3 scoreless innings after replacing Helling, but comic relief came from Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella during a ninth-inning ejection.

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Furious that Luis Matos wasn't ruled out at first base after making a wide turn on a single that moved Brian Roberts to third base with none out, Piniella slammed his hat to the ground three times, and kicked it all the way to the dugout. Players on the Orioles' bench lined up against the railing to watch.

B.J. Surhoff grounded into a double play as the tying run scored, finishing the Orioles' rally from a 5-1 deficit.

"The hat was just laying there," Piniella said. "What can I tell you? It was just begging for it."

And with no wind to worry about, he kicked it straight.

Orioles tonight

Opponent:New York Yankees

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Site:Camden Yards

Time:7:05

TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Yankees' Andy Pettitte (13-7, 4.10) vs. Orioles' Damian Moss (0-1, 2.63)

Opposing forces

The Orioles, who will play 10 of their remaining 13 series against teams with winning records, have fared almost identically against the American League's best teams and worst teams:

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vs. AL's best

Opponent Pct. O's record

Mariners .608 2-1

Yankees .602 2-2

Athletics .575 0-3

Red Sox .575 7-5

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Total 11-11

vs. AL's worst

Opponent Pct. O's record

Tigers .263 3-3

Devil Rays .403 6-10

Indians .430 3-3

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Rangers .442 7-2

Total 19-18


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