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A's offensive struggles continue in loss

A's offensive struggles continue in loss

ST. PETERSBURG -- A little more than a week ago, on the other side of the country, the A's were feeling pretty good about themselves.

On a sunny Sunday in Oakland, they were three outs from securing a series victory against the rival Angels and heading into the All-Star break just four games out of first place in the American League West.

But closer Huston Street couldn't get those outs before the Angels tied it, took the lead and eventually won the game and the series. The A's haven't won since, and after a 4-0 loss Monday at the hands of the host Rays, the Elephants are a season-high nine games behind the Halos.

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Oh, and in the wake of three of their best pitchers already having been traded this month, there's increasing speculation that Street might be the next to go. The White Sox, who are among the teams looking for bullpen help, contributed to the buzz by having a representative in the press box at Tropicana Field.

"You just can't think about any of that stuff; how many games you're back, trade rumors, whatever," A's second baseman Mark Ellis said. "I know it's a stupid cliche, but you really do have to take it one game at a time. And for us, the way we're going, we have to take it one pitch at a time."

Street didn't get a chance to pitch at all Monday. Two hits rarely generates a save situation for a closer, and that's all the A's could muster against All-Star lefty Scott Kazmir and two Tampa relievers in the opener of a three-game series between two young teams heading in polar-opposite directions.

Polar, in fact, aptly describes Oakland's icy offense right now. The A's, who have lost a season-high six games in a row, have scored a total of five runs while going 0-4 since the All-Star break.

"You just have to keep going out there and working, try to stay positive," said Oakland manager Bob Geren.

But even Geren, the team's unchallenged Prince of Positive, had to concede the pervasive vibe within the clubhouse.

"Guys are getting a little bit down, struggling," he said.

Kazmir certainly was a big reason for Monday's struggles. The winning pitcher for the American League in last Tuesday's Midsummer Classic was dominant for most of his seven innings, allowing two hits and four walks while striking out nine.

So impressive was Kazmir, who blew away rookies Carlos Gonzalez, Wes Bankston and Brooks Conrad in the fifth with three swinging third strikes, that his opposite was unabashedly envious.

"He's the kind of guy I look at, and think, 'I want to throw the ball like that,'" said Oakland's Dana Eveland, who gave up four runs on seven hits and four walks in five innings while falling to 7-7.

A's designated hitter Jack Cust also was impressed, noting that Kazmir's mid-90's fastball had wicked late life and that his changeup gave the team's right-handed hitters fits. Geren did some raving about Kazmir, too.

But while Cust, Geren and even Eveland attributed Oakland's offensive woes to the excellence of Kazmir and the three starting pitchers who held the A's in check over the weekend, Ellis did so only begrudgingly.

The Yankees swept the three-game series that concluded Sunday behind big-name starters Mike Mussina, Joba Chamberlain and Andy Pettitte.

"They're not invincible," Ellis said. "They're all good pitchers, but we should still be able to score some runs off them. It's not like we're facing [Toronto ace] Roy Halladay every day, or [Mariners ace] Felix Hernandez at his best.

"I think more than anything, it's just a team-wide funk."

Eveland was twice victimized by the long ball, and the Rays turned two of their three stolen bases -- in three attempts -- into runs.

B.J. Upton singled, stole second and scored on a single by rookie All-Star Evan Longoria to open the scoring in the bottom of the third inning, and Tampa put its impressive combination of power and team speed to good use in padding the lead.

After Willy Aybar pounded a solo homer high off the foul pole in left with one out in the fourth, Jonny Gomes singled, stole second and scored on a single by Akinori Iwamura. An inning later, Longoria led off with his 19th homer of the year, a high shot deep into the left-field bleachers.

"The pitch to Aybar was a pretty bad changeup," Eveland said, "but the pitch to Longoria wasn't a bad slider away. It was where I wanted it, but he went got it and hooked it. ...That's why he's an All-Star."

Cust had one of Oakland's hits and drew a pair of walks, and Ellis -- 0-for-2 with two walks -- was the only other Athletics player to reach base twice.

"We're just having a rough time right now," Cust said.

And Geren knows it. His team struck out 10 times on the night, bringing its four-game, post-break total to 48. Asked if the inability to put the ball in play was the product of a poor approach at the plate or great pitching by the opposition, he shook his head and sighed.

"To be honest," he said, "it's a little bit of everything."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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