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A'S 3, RED SOX 2

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Blister spells doom for Lowe and Red Sox

A blister? A measly skin sore, for heaven's sake? Of all the calamities the baseball demons could have uncoiled last night on the Red Sox in their hour of need, they struck Grady Little's crew with one of the tiniest -- and unkindest -- cuts of all: a painful blister on Derek Lowe's right thumb.

The thumb that allowed Lowe to unleash his nasty sinkerball and suffocate the A's on two hits over six scoreless innings. The thumb Lowe relied on to protect a 2-0 lead as the Sox battled the A's for supremacy in the crucial wild-card derby. The thumb that, once blistered, prevented Lowe from starting the seventh inning, thrusting the Sox into crisis.

In the time it took the medical team to begin treating Lowe, Boston's relief corps squandered all the righthander's good deeds as the two Scotts, Sauerbeck and Williamson, coughed up three runs to let the A's steal away a 3-2 victory before 34,879 at Fenway Park in the opener of a pivotal 12-game homestand.

"It's a tough loss, right there," Kevin Millar said just hours after he jokingly challenged the doomsayers by predicting a defeat would end the team's playoff hopes.

Williamson surrendered the key blow -- a three-run homer to Ramon Hernandez on a misplaced split-fingered fastball -- after Sauerbeck walked two batters to plant the seeds of Oakland's harvest of pain for the Sox. Hernandez's blast was Oakland's third and final hit of the game.

"I just threw one bad pitch and he hit it out," Williamson said after suffering his first American League loss. "Everyone saw it."

The loss dropped the Sox a game behind the A's in the wild-card scramble and left them a perilous 6 1/2 games behind the Yankees (seven out in the loss column) in the American League East after New York dropped the Royals, 6-3.

"They have had better days than they had there in the seventh inning," Sox manager Grady Little said of his Scotts. "[Sauerbeck] was brought in there to get those lefties out and he had trouble throwing them strikes. And then Williamson came in. The only bad pitch we had all game outside of those bases on balls was the pitch to Hernandez."

Nothing was sadder for the Sox than losing Lowe at perhaps the pinnacle of his season. Rising to the challenge of the pennant drive, Lowe befuddled the A's with pinpoint control, allowing only an infield single by Hernandez in the second and a single to left by Scott Hatteberg in the fifth (ending Hatteberg's 0-for-13 drought against his ex-batterymate).

"We felt like, `Please, give us one more inning and we'd have it,' " Embree said of Lowe. "But with the bullpen we have, we should have been OK from the sixth inning on."

Lowe did not allow a runner to reach second base before he was felled by the dreaded blistering that has bothered him intermittently this season -- and for much of his career.

"Obviously, you would love to win Game 1 of any series," Lowe said, "but it didn't work out."

The Sox hardly helped themselves at the plate, as they brought their frustrating road slump home. They came up short even though they caught a break when Mark Mulder, Oakland's top-shelf lefty, was forced from the game with a right hip strain after surrendering two runs over three innings.

The trouble was, the Sox chronically came up short with runners on base. Other than run-scoring singles in the second inning by Gabe Kapler and Damian Jackson, Little's once-fearsome mashers went unrequited in the clutch. They hurt themselves in part by grounding into double plays to end three innings.

"They were frustrating," Little said of the double plays. "We had some good chances there early in the game to have a few more runs on the board than two, but it didn't happen."

Then there was the pen, which absorbed its 23d loss of the season, two more than last year's widely maligned relief corps recorded. Sauerbeck, who had not pitched in six days, started the mess by sandwiching walks to Eric Chavez and Erubiel Durazo around a ground out by Miguel Tejada to start the seventh.

Sauerbeck indicated a long layoff may have contributed to his control problems, though he declined to use it as an excuse.

"I know throughout my career I'm not very good on a lot of rest," he said. "Usually, I'm good on no rest."

Still, he added, "I needed to do my job and throw strikes there. I just didn't get it done."

Nor did Williamson, leaving the 1-and-2 splitter over the plate for Hernandez, the first batter he faced.

"It's over," Williamson said. "There's nothing I can do about it now. Just suck it up and go out there and fight for your ball club."

But the Sox had little fight left in them, even after Mulder departed. Indeed, the Oakland bullpen allowed only one hit (Nomar Garciaparra's single off the Wall in the sixth) over the final six innings.

As a result, the Sox dropped to 2-22 when they score fewer than three runs. And though they are tied with Tampa Bay for the most one-run victories (20) in the league, five of their last seven losses have been by one or two runs. They also lost for the eighth time in 12 tries, falling to 8-10 in August.

"They're winning the close ones and we're not," Johnny Damon said of the A's. "It definitely makes it a lot tougher."

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