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A'S 5, RED SOX 1

Fall guys

Sox get dominated by Zito and are now just one oust away

OAKLAND, Calif. -- None of this was new to Nomar Garciaparra. He knew firsthand how a team reacts to losing the first two games of a best-of-five playoff series on the road, as the Red Sox did in Cleveland in 1999. So he fully anticipated confronting some unresolved issues when the Sox boarded their flight home last night after they absorbed two jarring blows from the A's that left their magical season at the breaking point.

"Four years ago, everybody was wondering who was sitting where for the card game and everything like that," Garciaparra said. "That's really the way it was, and I don't expect anything different now."

Cribbage, anyone?

One defeat away from a long winter at the card table, the Sox reacted to their latest disappointment -- a numbing 5-1 defeat before 36,305 at Network Associates Coliseum in Game 2 of the American League Division Series -- with their signature pluck.

What, the Comeback Kids crumble? Advised that the fainthearted back home almost certainly were lining up on the river crossings to plummet waterward in grief, Garciaparra sensed the faithful among them would stand proudly behind the Sox in Game 3 at Fenway Park tomorrow night when they begin their last-gasp bid to survive the double whammy out West.

"They may be jumping off bridges," Garciaparra said, "but I guarantee they'll get out of the water and they'll be out there supporting us on Saturday."

The Sox could have used all of them -- and much more -- yesterday in their showdown against Barry Zito and the A's. With the nastiest curve west of the Mississippi, Zito utterly dismantled one of the mightiest offensive machines in modern times, limiting the record-setting Sox lineup to a lone run on five hits and a pair of walks over seven innings.

The reigning Cy Young Award winner dealt the Sox their 10th straight playoff loss to the A's since 1988. The defeat followed a 5-4 loss in 12 innings that left Grady Little's gang trying to become the first team since the 1958 Yankees to win a playoff series after losing the opener in extra innings.

The Sox have prevailed only once in franchise history after dropping the first two games of a postseason series. But Garciaparra and the card sharks pulled it off when they won three straight against the Indians in '99, a source of vast inspiration amid the latest challenge.

"I know it can be done," said Jason Varitek, who participated in the '99 comeback. "Just let us get home and see what happens."

It may happen, though, only if the Sox minimize the kind of miscues that hurt them in the first two games and unleash the powerhouse offense that propelled them into the postseason. The Sox hit only .228 over the first two games and averaged fewer than three runs a game.

"We got here by hitting," Little said. "We've got to come out hitting the baseball."

The Sox had a shot at Zito only in the early innings, before the lefthander perfected the touch on his devastating curveball and began firing it with pinpoint precision. They scored only on consecutive doubles by Doug Mirabelli and Johnny Damon in the third inning before being silenced the rest of the way.

"After the second inning, he found that stupid curveball and started dropping it right in there for strikes," Mirabelli said. "He was in a comfort zone for about four or five innings where he felt like he could do whatever he wanted to do."

Unfortunately for the Sox, Tim Wakefield was not as successful. The knuckleballer endured a nightmarish second inning that made all the difference as the A's struck for five runs amid a bout of Wakefield wildness. It started innocently enough with a walk to Jose Guillen, but Guillen quickly advanced on a passed ball and scored on a single by Ramon Hernandez, who delivered the winning bunt in Game 1.

Wakefield's next pitch glanced off Jermaine Dye's leg, clearing the way for Dye to score when Eric Byrnes sent a drive to the warning track in left that discombobulated Manny Ramirez. Unable to clearly read the ball, Ramirez let it drop, then bobbled it, enabling Dye's clear shot at the plate as Byrnes steamed into second.

Complicating matters, Wakefield walked Mark Ellis before Eric Chavez punched a two-out grounder toward right field. Second baseman Todd Walker made a fine play to glove the ball, but when he bounced up, he dropped the ball. Worse, he hurried a throw to first, air-mailing the ball over Kevin Millar for an error that allowed two more runs to score and stuck the Sox in a 5-0 quagmire.

"I think that was the momentum change, to be honest," Walker said. "That was my fault. I tried to make a better play than I probably should have. If I make that play, I feel like we can come in the dugout down, 3-0, and get a little momentum back, and who knows what happens?"

Instead, the Sox, weary from a short night's sleep against the well-rested Zito (he left the park long before the final out in Game 1), plodded unproductively until the final out.

"The first thing that goes through my head is letting my team down and letting the fans down in Boston," Walker said. "That's a tough thing to swallow."

But the Sox, as always, believe the best is yet to come despite their crisis.

"We know our backs are against the wall, but this is no time to feel sorry for ourselves," Damon said. "We've won three in a row many times this year, and it looks like we're going to have to do it again."

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