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Birds of prey

Orioles dig their claws into Sox again

BALTIMORE -- Forget about the Yankees. The way things are shaping up, only the Orioles -- or the Red Sox themselves -- may pose a greater obstacle on the road to the postseason than Boss Steinbrenner's crew.

Only two other teams in the American League -- the division-leading Yankees (10-9) and playoff-contending Twins (4-2) -- hold an advantage in their season series against Grady Little's mashers, but the Orioles improved to 8-5 last night thanks in large part to another jarring collapse by the Boston pen and one of the team's ugliest defensive efforts of the season.

In a wild affair marked by controversy, ejections, and assorted freakish events, the Orioles twice stormed from behind before they struck for four unearned runs off Byung Hyun Kim in the eighth inning to break a 9-9 tie en route to a stunning 13-10 victory before 23,276 at Camden Yards.

"This is a game we obviously should have won, when we score 10 runs," Kevin Millar said. "The bottom line is, we had some letdown and some weird and wacky plays."

The loss dropped the Sox 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East and allowed the Mariners to get within a game of Boston in the wild card race. The Sox blew leads of 4-3 and 8-4 before a bizarre finale.

"This game is definitely not sitting well," said Johnny Damon, who made one of Boston's season-high four errors and slugged a three-run homer on his way to knocking in four runs. "We knew we played the Yankees tough, and we felt pretty confident about this game, especially after having the lead that we did."

After the Sox doomed themselves with porous defense and poor pitching down the stretch, Little was asked if he saw too many mental errors. "I sure did," he said. "We're glad this is behind us."

Amid a 9-9 deadlock entering the eighth, Kim surrendered an infield single to Jerry Hairston, a late addition to the lineup after B.J. Surhoff was scratched. Kim then threw wildly on a bunt by Matos, though it appeared Matos could have been called for interference. In any case, Hairston landed on third and Matos on first after the error. A batter later, Tony Batista grounded to second baseman Todd Walker, who was playing in on the grass. And Hairston beat Walker's throw to Doug Mirabelli at the plate for the go-ahead run.

"They had their fastest guy at third," Walker said. "I saw him out of the corner of my eyes. I wasn't even going to throw it home but you have to, kind of a courtesy throw. Maybe if we block the plate, he doesn't hit the plate, but it almost looked like he took off before the ball was even hit. It was a good play on his part."

Kim complicated matters by coughing up a run-scoring single to Melvin Mora before Deivi Cruz's fly ball to center bounced off Damon's glove for an error, allowing two more runs to score, making it 13-9. Damon said he was conscious of Walker approaching and concerned about colliding with him and possibly injuring his knees.

"I saw it and got my glove on it, but I got scared," he said. "I still should have caught it. Most of the other times I do. I was trying to catch it and get out of the way."

When Bill Mueller took closer Jorge Julio deep in the ninth for Boston's 213th homer of the season -- tying a franchise record -- it was too little too late.

"We weren't sharp," Damon said. "We definitely need to get better."

Nomar Garciaparra had homered in the top of the eighth to force a 9-9 tie after three Sox relievers -- Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, and Scott Williamson -- combined to squander an 8-5 lead.

Timlin planted the seed for Baltimore's comeback by surrendering a double to Matos leading off the seventh. Matos reached third when Mueller failed to handle a throw from Garciaparra for an error. After the Orioles claimed to no avail that the ball bounced out of play and Matos should have scored, Batista then singled off Timlin to knock in Matos.

On came Embree, who yielded a single to Larry Bigbie, sending Batista to second, before Williamson was summoned. Williamson aggravated matters by walking Mora to load the bases before Cruz laced an 0-and-1 pitch for the most controversial hit by the Birds, a three-run double over the third base bag into the left field corner, making it 9-8.

Sox catcher Jason Varitek angrily protested that the ball was foul, slamming his helmet and mask to the ground as he was ejected for the first time this season. And when Derek Lowe joined in from the dugout, he, too, was tossed for the first time this year.

Williamson also believed Cruz's shot was foul.

"It should have been 0-and-2 right there, but I guess the umpire saw it differently," Williamson said. "From our view, it was definitely a foul ball. If he calls it the way it should have been, it's 0-and-2 and it's a different ballgame."

In any case, Williamson blew his second save in as many tries this season.

"When you look at the box score, it looks like you pitched bad," he said, "but I don't think I did."

Varitek wasn't pointing fingers, but he acknowledged what most observers accepted for fact.

"We have to do a better job in the bullpen," he said. "We didn't go our jobs today."

The late-inning drama wasted homers by Damon, Mueller, Garciaparra, and Manny Ramirez. It followed rocky starts both by John Burkett (five runs on 10 hits in 5 1/3 innings) and Baltimore's Rodrigo Lopez (eight runs on 13 hits in 5 2/3 innings).

"I started it," Burkett said. "I'm a believer that in September when you're playing a team that's out of it and you take their heat of the game, it makes a big difference. But I continued to give them hope the whole game. I felt like if I did my job, the whole game would have been different."

He was not alone.

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