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Not all sweet for Lou

Ups, downs for manager Piniella

Before last night's game against the Red Sox, Tampa Bay's Lou Piniella didn't want to talk about speculation that he will manage the Mets in the Big Apple next season.

He did talk about how difficult it has been to manage the Devil Rays this season, and how unfair he believes it is that his young team plays most of its games in the AL East.

It's been an emotional roller coaster for Piniella this season.

When Tampa Bay won its fifth game of the year, a 3-0 shutout over Chicago April 16, the Devil Rays were 5-4.

Then the Rays struggled, falling to 10-28 after a 4-1 loss to the Red Sox May 19.

But on May 20, when the Devil Rays beat Derek Lowe and the Red Sox, 9-6, to salvage the final game of a three-game series in Tampa Bay, it began an incredible run.

Tampa Bay won five in a row, and 30 of 40 between May 20 and July 3, lifting the team out of the American League East cellar and into third place, 10 games behind the Yankees and 2 1/2 behind the second-place Red Sox. During that stretch, Tampa Bay had a team-record 12-game winning streak, and it lifted the Rays to a 40-38 record. But since then the Devil Rays have faltered, winning only 21 of their last 63 games, throwing a 12-game losing streak in there as well.

The 12-game streak was the second-longest in the team's history and the longest during Piniella's managerial career. Tampa Bay is the second team in the modern era to have won 12 games in a row and to have lost 12 or more in a row in the same season (the other the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers).

"It hasn't been easy this season," said Piniella. "I know it's been a difficult year for me. We started out poorly and we picked ourselves up to about .500, and then we slipped back."

This has been a difficult time for Floridians, with hurricanes Charley and Frances causing devastation, but Piniella won't use that as an excuse.

"I think the Red Sox and the Yankees had a lot more to do with our situation than the hurricanes," said Piniella. "It's hard in our division. You play the Red Sox and Yankees 19 times each. That's 38 games, basically a quarter of our schedule, and they are both very, very good teams. I think our situation would be better if they balanced the schedule. Let every team in the league have the pleasure of playing those very good teams 12 times a year. Let us play everybody else."

While the Red Sox and Yankees are fighting it out for the AL East title, the Devil Rays have a goal as well. They want to be the first Tampa Bay team to win 70 games. "We've got 61 victories. We've got to play about 20 games, and we are chasing it," said Piniella.

The future does look bright, with young stars Aubrey Huff, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Toby Hall, and B.J. Upton, although some may eventually leave in free agency. Piniella has seen them all improve. "They are getting better," he said.Whether he is around to see them develop after this season is another matter.

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