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Another late-inning collapse by relievers

OAKLAND - The Red Sox bullpen, fuel for radio talk shows and too often the spark to major fires this season, briefly provided some quenching relief last night before once again turning to its true-blew, self-immolation ways.

Ultimately, the 'pen's struggles became so long, so twisted, that steady starter Derek Lowe - slated to start Game 3 of the Divsional Series - was forced into an emergency-relief role. And ultimately it was Lowe who was tagged with the 5-4 loss on Ramon Hernandez's bases-loaded, two-out bunt single in the 12th inning.

Lowe, who took over in the 11th inning as the sixth Boston hurler, began his own trouble in the 12th by walking leadoff hitter Erubiel Durazo. Two outs later, with Eric Chavez at third base, Lowe issued a walk to ex-Sox teammate Scott Hatteberg, and when Hatteberg moved up to second on defensive indifference, the Sox opted to give an intentional pass to Terrence Long, loading the bases for Hernandez.

Lowe got his first pitch over to the A's catcher, and his second pitch was right there, too, for Hernandez to drop down his rolling bunt toward Bill Mueller at third. The charging Mueller, in Brooks Robinson style, reached down barehanded to grab the ball in hopes of making a force play at the plate on Chavez. But there was no play to make. Mueller held the ball, and with Lowe hunkered over, hands on knees, in shock and disbelief, Chavez came scooting across in front of Jason Varitek with the winning run.

"Hernandez does have a history of bunting periodically in situations like that," said Sox manager Grady Little. "And he got one down right there."

Sox righthander Mike Timlin, who made a club-high 72 appearances during the season, came out of the pen to start the eighth after Sox starter Pedro Martinez plowed through the first seven innings with 130 pitches.

"Pedro pitched his heart out out there," said Little. "He got through the seventh inning and that was a pivotal point right there - but we couldn't close it out."

The oft-shaky Timlin, faced with the A's 4-5-6 hitters, set down the likes of Miguel Tejada, Hatteberg, and Jose Guillen in order. The cleanup-hitting Tejada fouled out to third to start the inning, and then the 37-year-old Timlin fanned both Hatteberg and Guillen.

Perhaps not tempted to test fate with Timlin for another inning, Sox skipper Grady Little called for the erratic BK, Byung-Hyun Kim, to start the ninth. Kim erased the first hitter, Hernandez, on a fly ball to center.

Then the fun began.

The No. 8 hitter, Jermaine Dye, walked on four pitches. The next hitter, Chris Singleton, was hit by a BK pitch - immediately raising the ire of the Sox submarining hurler. Kim contended to homeplate ump Randy Marsh that Singleton had swung at the pitch as the ball plunked him in the mid-section. Marsh, the crew chief, overruled the objection, having felt that Singleton checked his swing. The result: Two men on, one out, one real mess.

The night ended for Kim when he fanned Mark Ellis for the second out. Little, looking to play the odds, brought in the lefthanded Alan Embree to face lefthanded DH Erubiel Durazo, whose third-inning double contributed two runs to the A's three-run inning.

The odds didn't play. Durazo, hanging tough on a 1-1 pitch, went to the opposite field (left) with a single that brought in pinch-runner Eric Byrnes from second with the tying run. TV cameras panned the Sox bench, where a solemn, tight-lipped Kim looked on, the look on his face one of umistakable anger. Tie game, 4-4. Embree ended it with an Eric Chavez grounder to short, one that Nomar Garciaparra nearly threw away on his toss to first.

After the Sox were set down, 1-2-3, in their half of the 10th, righthander Scott Williamson became the fifth Boston pitcher when he met Tejada to start the A's 10th. With virtually the entire A's bench sitting on the top step of the dugout, Tejada was caught looking at a third-strike curve on a 3-2 pitch.

But Williamson didn't make it easy. After fanning Tejada, he promptly wallked Hatteberg. On a 3-2 pitch to Terrence Long, Hatteberg broke for second base. The pitch fanned Long for the second out, but Hatteberg reached second ahead of Varitek's throw - the winning run apparently at second. But Marsh, the home-plate ump, promptly ruled that Long blatantly interfered with Varitek's attempt to throw to second, and the inning ended on the interference call. The play goes down as an unassisted double play for Varitek.

That was it for Williamson. When the A's came to bat in the 11th, Sox starter Derek Lowe was on the mound, making his first relief appearance since Sept. 9, 2001 (after 68 starts). Lowe is also slated to start Game 3 of the series Saturday night at Fenway. After walking leadoff hitter Ramon Hernandez, Lowe skipped out of trouble on the strength of two strikeouts and a grounder. But there was no skipping out of the 12th.

Little said the two innings of relief won't keep Lowe from making his scheduled start on Saturday.

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