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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Game One slips away from Sox

12th-inning bunt wins it for A's, 5-4

OAKLAND - What is it about October and the Red Sox? One might say the Sox are haunted in the 10th month. Through the years it's certainly been Boston baseball's season of the witch.

In one of the more excruciating losses of any Red Sox postseason, the Sox dropped a 12-inning, 5-4 decision to the A's last night. It was downright ghoulish. Boston's flammable bullpen blew a 4-3 lead with two outs in the ninth. Sox manager Grady Little, certain to be barbequed long into the winter, went with his Saturday starter, Derek Lowe, in the last two innings and it was Lowe who walked off the hill in defeat when A's catcher Ramon Hernandez scored Eric Chavez from third with a perfectly placed, two-out, bases-loaded bunt single at precisely 2:47 a.m. Boston time.

In other words, this one was Buckner, Dent, Galehouse, and Frazee all rolled into one tight package. The Red Sox not only lost the game, they undoubtedly lost Pedro Martinez (season-high 130 pitches) for Game 4 and their Game 3 starter, Lowe, threw 45 pitches in taking the emotional loss.

Little is going to take some flak for lifting Mike Timlin after the eighth inning. Timlin pitched a perfect eighth, fanning two, but he did not come out to start the ninth. Little went with much-maligned closer Byung Hyun Kim. After getting one out, Kim walked a batter, then hit another. Kim was pulled after fanning Mark Ellis, but Alan Embree came on and surrendered a game-tying single to Eubiel Durazo.

Oakland won it in the 12th with three walks (one intentional) and Hernandez's perfect, surprise bunt single.

"Ramon does that from time to time," said Oakland manager Ken Macha. "It was all him. What an ending. The A's win on a bunt."

"It was a tough game," said Little. "We fought hard. The game has to end somehow. We've had losses like that this season and we've rebounded well. Hopefully, we'll be able to do that tomorrow."

Excruciating. Any Sox fans who were still awake could only curse the October sky. Take away baseball and October certainly presents New England at its best. October brings dry air, crisp apples, and dazzling foliage. Before turning the clocks back, before Halloween, we enjoy a string of sunny, cool days while crimson and orange leaves fall and the Harvest Moon rises.

Unfortunately October has not been a friend of the local baseball team. Since the end of World War I, October has brought nothing but agita to Red Sox fans. There have been four World Series defeats, all in seventh games, plus assorted playoff flops. Today is the silver anniversary of Bucky Dent's playoff homer, for gosh sakes. Unless you are at least 90 years old, you have no memory of the Sox winning their final (postseason) game in October.

The best thing about last night's game might have been the late start and the hideous late finish. Hopefully, New England children were shielded from the horrible loss.

On the bright side, the Sox had Todd Walker stroking four hits and two homers. Jason Varitek also hit a homer and Martinez threw a Tiant-esque seven innings, struggling throughout. He walked four and struck out only three, and got Chavez to pop up with the bases loaded on his last pitch. There were were high-fives and chest-bumps all around when Pedro got to the dugout.

In addition to staying up late to watch Martinez duel Oakland ace Tim Hudson (who struggled more than Pedro, giving up 10 hits in 6 innings) Sox fans found themselves monitoring a couple of other Division Series. Winning the Fall Classic remains the goal, but most members of Red Sox Nation have mapped out the magic path that would lead to the ultimate moment. In a perfect world, the Red Sox would beat Oakland, thrash the hated Yankees in the American League Championship Series, then smother the Chicago Cubs in a World Series for the ages.

Call it greed, but elements of revenge and symmetry call for the Sox to play the Yankees, then the Cubs after this first series with the A's. Boston CEO Larry Lucchino has tabbed the Yankees the "Evil Empire," and the Yankees hold a 26-0 edge over the Sox in World Series titles since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees for $125,000 and a mortgage on Fenway Park. The Cubs, meanwhile, bring a 95-year World Series drought into October 2003. The Sox and Cubs have not played a game that counts since Carl Mays beat Chicago, 2-1, in the sixth and final game of the World Series at Fenway Park on Sept. 11, 1918.

Standing in front of the Sox dugout a couple of hours before the first October game, Red Sox owner Tom Werner acknowledged he's pondered the A's-Yanks-Cubs sequence.

"If you were going to write the perfect story, that's what you would do," said Werner. "You wouldn't go to Minnesota or Florida for the next rounds. I know this is getting ahead of ourselves, but I believe a Red Sox-Cubs World Series would galvanize the country in a way that baseball hasn't seen in a couple of decades."

Standing nearby, Lucchino, who is superstitious about what he eats for lunch, wouldn't have any part of the discussion.

"I don't care who we play," said the CEO. "I'd play the Little Sisters of the Poor to get to the World Series. It doesn't matter. I believe you only have so many hopes and wonders you're entitled to. Getting there is the thing - who we play is a luxury we can't afford to think about."

Most of those who are thinking about it hope the Yankees can come back from losing their first game against the Twins Tuesday. The Steinbrenner Gang has routinely won playoff series after losing the opener (they beat the A's three straight after losing the first two games two years ago), and Sox fans seeking ultimate revenge find themselves in the rare position of rooting for Pinstripes this week. Meanwhile, the Cubs have a 1-1 split in their first two games with the Braves.

Red Sox Nation made its presence felt at Network Associates Coliseum throughout the first game. When the gates opened two hours before game time, a contingent of New Englanders gathered behind the Sox dugout. Many held signs of support. Spotting Boston's 29-year-old general manager standing in front of the dugout, one fan hollered, "Thank you, Theo." Theo Epstein smiled and waved.

It was like that all night. Chants of "Let's Go Red Sox," no doubt made the Sons of Grady Little feel right at home.

In the end, it's just as well the Sox were on the road. This one might have been too much for the Fenway fans to take.

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