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MARINERS 3, RED SOX 1

Weary Sox turn for home

Long West Coast journey ends with loss to Mariners

SEATTLE -- They return home, after yesterday's bloodless 3-1 loss to Freddy Garcia and the Mariners, as far behind the Yankees (5 games, 6 in the loss column) as they have been all season in the American League East, and tied with the A's for the wild card.

But having survived a seven-game swing through Oakland, Calif., and Seattle with October still in their sights -- and only a total collapse would have buried them in mid-August -- the Red Sox said they will gladly take their chances against the A's and Mariners this week on their home turf.

"This trip could have been a disaster," said Sox pitcher John Burkett, yesterday's loser after allowing three two-out runs in the fourth inning. "It could have been better if we won today.

"But these were two tough teams, and now we go home to play them. Both teams are very good, Oakland and Seattle. They have good starting pitching. But I'll put our offense up against anybody. They were able to shut us down for the most part on the road, but I expect it to be different at home.

"We have an exceptional offensive team built for Fenway Park, and hopefully we'll get our bats going."

Burkett paused for effect. "Somebody else is coming in," he said, poker-faced. "Who is it?"

Oh, yes. The Yankees, who will occupy the anchor leg of the 12-game homestand that begins tomorrow against the A's in the first of a three-game set, continues with a four-game weekend series that wraps through Aug. 25 with the Mariners, then a two-game quickie against the Blue Jays, who have played the Sox virtually even (9-8) this season, before the Yankees come to town for three games that will take the Sox to Labor Day.

Trot Nixon, whose 23d home run of the season, which cleared the center-field wall in the third inning, accounted for Boston's only run, reacted with a dollop of testiness when asked whether the Sox had discovered that the A's and Mariners were all they were cranked up to be after splitting a four-game set in Oakland and dropping the rubber game of their three-game set here.

"We're one of the best teams in baseball, too," Nixon said. "We knew these guys were good, and Oakland is good, but we're pretty good, too."

Garcia, ostensibly the ace of the Mariners' staff after having won a total of 34 games in the previous two seasons, has been a notch less than good for much of this season, coming into yesterday's game with a 10-12 record and 5.28 ERA and having just ended an ugly (0-6, 10.03 ERA) personal losing streak in his previous start.

"But it seems like everybody gets better when we get to town," said Sox DH David Ortiz, reflecting on the way Garcia set down 17 batters in a row after Nixon opened the third with his homer.

The Sox hit a few balls well off Garcia, but Safeco Field is notorious for favoring pitchers, as a rueful Ortiz noted after his deep drive to right died on the warning track.

"We might be bunting [tomorrow]," he said. "Unbelievable."

Nixon finally gave the Sox a base runner when he walked with two out in the eighth, and would have scored on Bill Mueller's drive to the left-center gap. But the ball hopped over the fence for a ground-rule double, and Nixon was forced to stop at third. He would advance no further, as Mariners rookie Rafael Soriano entered and overpowered Nomar Garciaparra on three pitches, the Sox shortstop taking a called third strike.

Shigetoshi Hasegawa then worked a 1-2-3 ninth, extending his consecutive scoreless streak to 28 2/3 innings. Hasegawa, who became Seattle's closer when Kazuhiro Sasaki fractured some ribs when he supposedly slipped while carrying a suitcase, has converted 13 consecutive save opportunities.

"For Freddy to retire 17 in a row against our lineup, that's an outstanding job," Burkett said. "And Soriano made some great pitches to Nomar. Nomar is a great fastball hitter, but Soriano put 'em in the right spot."

Burkett had one of his better outings of the season, limiting the Mariners to a bloop single by John Mabry through the first three innings. But with two outs and nobody on in the fourth, he walked Edgar Martinez after having him in an 0-and-2 hole. He then handcuffed catcher Jason Varitek with a cut fastball that Burkett said he misheld, causing it to break in a direction different than Varitek was expecting. Randy Winn followed by lining a double to right, and Mabry reached out and lined an outside pitch to left-center for an RBI double. Rey Sanchez kept the inning alive with a roller down the third-base line, and Ben Davis blooped a single to right for another run.

"I'm willing to take that pitch 100 times a game," Burkett said of his pitch to Mabry while bemoaning his inability to avoid the big inning (he gave up five runs in the first in a 5-3 loss to Barry Zito and the A's last Tuesday).

"Earlier in the game, he had fought off a pitch inside and flared it for a hit. I wasn't afraid to come back inside to him, but maybe the pitch he hit was something he was looking for, because he had a good swing at it. You got to give credit to a guy when he can go down and get a pitch that's five inches off the ground and on the black."

Still, Burkett said, considering the Sox lost the first two games of this trip in Oakland, they can go home with a measure of satisfaction.

"We just have to keep grinding away," he said. "It's not going to be easy. It's going to come down to the last part of the season. We just have to concentrate, stay focused, and do the things we're capable of doing."

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