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A'S 5, RED SOX 4

Squeezed out

Bullpen fails to close out win

OAKLAND - Because there are no such things as ghosts - or curses, or predestined rites of October tragedy - someone has some explaining to do.

The easy answer, of course, is that even the greatest athletes sometimes fail in the clutch. The more cosmic answer may be simply that the Red Sox are, well, the Red Sox.

But whatever the reason, the Sox relief corps - yes, them again - opened the barn door one out shy of an exhilarating 4-3 victory early this morning and ultimately let the A's gallop over them in a crushing 5-4 heartbreaker in 12 innings before 50,606 at Network Associates Coliseum in the pivotal opener of the best-of-five American League Division Series.

After Byung Hyun Kim and Alan Embree combined to blow the lead in the ninth, the A's scored the winning run off Game 3's scheduled starter, Derek Lowe, when Eric Chavez dashed home on Ramon Hernandez's bases-loaded suicide squeeze toward third base with two outs in the bottom of the 12th.

"In that situation with an 0-1 count, you're just not thinking bunt," Lowe said. "In the postseason, sometimes you take chances. If it doesn't work, people ask, `What the heck were they doing?' But if it does, you win."

Lowe, who was summoned to start the 11th inning in his first relief appearance since Sept. 9, 2001 (a span of 68 starts), created the final mess by walking three batters (one intentionally) before Hernandez's stunning bunt. Third baseman Bill Mueller charged and barehanded the ball but had no play as Chavez scored uncontested.

"We would certainly have rather had an out," Sox manager Grady Little said, "but we didn't have an out, and the game was over."

Hernandez said he was not surprised to see the bunt sign since Mueller was playing so deep.

"I think it was one of the biggest hits I ever had in my career," he said. "The Red Sox have a great team, and sometimes you have to try whatever you can to beat teams like that."

Nor did Little indicate he was surprised by the bunt.

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

The 4-hour, 37-minute disaster, which ended at 2:47 a.m., extended Boston's postseason winless streak against the A's to nine games dating to the 1988 AL Championship Series. More important, it left them playing catchup without a reasonable chance of using Pedro Martinez again until a possible Game 5. The Sox ace fired a season-high 130 pitches in delivering the Sox to the threshold of victory before the latest bullpen catastrophe.

Little did not rule out going to Martinez in Game 4 if he deemed it necessary. Nor was Lowe's start Saturday in Game 3 affected, the manager said.

"It's been a while since he's been on the mound," Little said. "That was good for him."

Kim blew the save by striking again - literally. After walking Jermaine Dye with one out in the bottom of the ninth, he drilled Chris Singleton on the left arm with a pitch to push Eric Byrnes, running for Dye, into scoring position at second base. The Sox protested that Singleton was swinging and should have been charged with a strike, to no avail.

Kim retired the next batter, Mark Ellis, before Little summoned Alan Embree to face the lefthanded hitting Erubiel Durazo. No sooner did Kim, visibly upset either at creating the mess, being lifted or both, depart than Embree let Durazo rip a 94-mile-an-hour fastball to left-center to knock in Byrnes and force extra innings.

Little said he went to Embree based "solely on the percentage of lefthanders" Kim had gotten out in the inning.

"We had done that earlier in the season and the inning was over," Little said of Embree's previous success. "It didn't happen there."

After Scott Williamson pitched a scoreless 10th, Little summoned Lowe, who survived the 11th inning before his lack of command killed him - and the Sox - in the 12th.

The Sox, who went hitless after the eighth inning, had one last chance in the 12th when Rich Harden walked Manny Ramirez and Bill Mueller before Gabe Kapler scorched a two-out grounder down the third base line. But Chavez made a fantastic play to backhand the ball and dived to the base to beat Ramirez and end the inning.

"We had our chances tonight," Todd Walker said. "But in the end, the biggest difference was Durazo's ball could have been at somebody and it wasn't. And the ball Gabe hit down the line, even though Chavez made a great play, it was withing his reach. It certainly could have been over his head or down the line, so those are the differences right there."

The wrong turn by Kim and Embree unfolded after splendid performances by Martinez and Walker. As Martinez lived up to his legacy of postseason brilliance, Walker lived up to his bravado just days after he commandeered a microphone on the mound at Fenway Park in the heady aftermath of the wild-card clincher and declared, "We're going to roll into Oakland and whip some [butt] and go from there."

The Sox rode Walker's sudden power surge (two home runs and three RBIs) and Martinez's act of grit and guile to the 4-3 lead before the unraveling. Walker's second shot, off lefthander Ricardo Rincon in the eighth inning, erased a 3-2 deficit and helped propel Martinez toward a possible victory. The Sox ace left after the seventh inning with the lead intact.

Jason Varitek made a major difference by socking a solo homer and helping to guide Martinez through a maze of potential mayhem. With Varitek catching, Martinez spotted the A's only the three runs by scattering six hits and four walks.

The A's ended Martinez's 19-inning postseason scoreless streak dating to his sensational run in the `99 playoffs when they struck for three runs in the third inning. But even amid Oakland's dogged attempt to knock him out by driving up his pitch count, Martinez persevered. His crucial moment came after he lost an 11-pitch battle and walked Erubiel Durazo to load the bases with two outs in the bottom of the seventh. With the lead in peril, Martinez needed only one pitch to induce Oakland's home run leader, Eric Chavez, to pop out to end the threat.

The Sox pen took it from there, as Mike Timlin mowed down the A's in the eighth before Kim and Embree faltered.

Martinez outdueled his Oakland nemesis, Tim Hudson, who beat him Aug. 11 by twirling a complete-game two-hitter against the Sox, the finest performance of the season by an opposing starter. Before Martinez and Hudson faced each other last night, the aces had pitched nearly to a standoff in three previous showdowns since 1999, with Hudson winning two of three while posting a 3.00 ERA over 18 innings and Martinez logging a 3.32 ERA over 19 innings.

Hudson went 6 innings, throwing 106 pitches before he was forced out with a finger cramp.

No sooner did the game end than both teams prepared to return for Game 2 at 4 p.m. And the loss left the Sox little wiggle room, though they are no strangers to adversity.

"This team has picked itself up off the canvas plenty of times before," general manager Theo Epstein said. "We'll do it again."

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