Devil Rays 3, Orioles 1

Rafael Palmeiro and his Baltimore Orioles teammates lurched to the midway point in their season Tuesday night, plagued by the same curious, maddening problem: Neither Palmeiro individually, nor the Orioles as a whole, can seem to avoid being dominated by left-handers.

For the Orioles, it is an old problem. For the likely Hall of Fame-bound Palmeiro, however, it is something unprecedented -- and something that hints at a dark, creeping notion too painful to acknowledge.

A 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays found the Orioles shut out for eight innings by lefty Mark Hendrickson, before rallying briefly in the ninth against closer Danys Baez. With two outs, the Orioles put four straight batters on base, including Luis Lopez's RBI single, but Brian Roberts fouled out to third with the bases loaded to end the game.

The Orioles fell to 9-17 this season in games started by lefties, and 55-102 since the start of the 2001 season.

As one considers the state of the Orioles at the halfway point of this pivotal season, one can see clearly that neither a new manager (Lee Mazzilli), an offseason infusion of talent (sluggers Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Palmeiro) nor a midseason infusion of pitching (rookie right-hander Daniel Cabrera) has altered the bottom line.

The Orioles find themselves with the same 81-game record they held a year ago: 36-45. Only this time, the record carries an added sense of urgency, for the simple reason that owner Peter Angelos spent copiously this winter and expected more in return.

The Orioles have other problems, no doubt, including a second-base situation that seems to be getting more complicated by the day and a dearth of pitching that will force them to start left-handed reliever John Parrish in Wednesday night's series finale.

However, at present, no problem seems to be consuming the Orioles as much as Palmeiro and his struggles against lefties. An 0-for-3 showing against Hendrickson on Tuesday night dropped his average to .159 against left-handers -- or 125 points below his career average against lefties entering the season.

For a player with 539 career homers, and nine straight seasons with 38 or more -- a player who has terrorized pitchers, right- or left-handed, for nearly 17 big league seasons -- the acute struggles this season are sobering.

"I've got no answers," Palmeiro said glumly after the game. "I don't know what to say anymore. I try to figure it out myself, why I'm struggling so bad against lefties -- which I never have. I can't figure it out. I'm sure a lot of it is mental.

"When I go up to the plate I feel good. My mind is right. I don't feel overmatched or anything. I see the ball well. . . . I'm fine [health-wise]. I feel good. It's nothing physical. It's probably mental, and not being mechanically right."

Mazzilli implied the team's struggles against lefties are closely tied to Palmeiro's -- since his status in the fourth spot of the lineup (and lately, the fifth spot) makes him a pivotal figure in the offense's fortunes. However, eight of the 10 Orioles with 100 or more at-bats are hitting lower against lefties than against right-handers.

"When Raffy's not being Raffy," Mazzilli said, "I think at times it changes a few things. [But] it's a team. You can't put anything on one guy."

Twice Tuesday night, Palmeiro came to the plate against Hendrickson (6-6) in potential RBI situations, with a pair of runners on base, and both times he flied out weakly. The latter at-bat came in the sixth, the last time the Orioles threatened against Hendrickson, who outpitched Orioles starter Rodrigo Lopez (6-5).

Soon, Mazzilli may have to consider whether he can afford to keep putting Palmeiro in his lineups against left-handed starters. For certain, it would be politically dicey to begin benching the future Hall of Famer. But at a certain point, the sad numbers are impossible to ignore.

Asked if he is confident he can still become the old Raffy, Palmeiro said: "I'm tired of waiting. It's time."

Orioles Notes: Concerned about Javy Lopez's heavy workload behind the plate, the Orioles claimed backup catcher Ken Huckaby on waivers, and plan to carry three catchers for the immediate future.

Huckaby, 33, has spent parts of four seasons in the majors with Arizona, Toronto and Texas, compiling a .235 average, and is perhaps best known for dislocating Derek Jeter's shoulder in a collision at third base last season, when Huckaby was with Toronto. Lopez, 33, has caught 66 of 81 games, and has served as designated hitter in 11 others. Over the weekend, he told that he would like to get more rest. . . .

Palmeiro, one of four active members of the 500 home run club, accepted an invitation to participate in the Home Run Derby as part of the All-Star Game festivities next week in Houston.

Miguel Tejada takes his hat off to Mark Hendrickson, who shut out the Orioles for 8 innings. Ninth-inning rally fell short vs. reliever Danys Baez.The Orioles' Luis Lopez tags out Tampa Bay's Jose Cruz, who tried to stretch a double into a triple in the fifth inning at Camden Yards.