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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Faithful refuse to overreact during sad performance

Red Sox fans gave the fellas a mulligan on this one. As the game degenerated in the late innings, the happy thousands stuck around and cheered when 34-year-old David McCarty made his big league pitching debut. Though the game was out of reach, there was more delight when old friend Brian Daubach came up with two outs in the ninth.

There were hardly any boos for Mike Timlin, who imploded in the eighth, or for manager Terry Francona, who saw his club of great expectations drop a 10-5 decision to the Toronto Blue Jays in the 93d Fenway Park opener. Ever convinced that this is the year, the hearty legions will be back tonight hoping to see Pedro Martinez hoist the Sox back to .500.

There were plenty of excuses for a bad day on Good Friday. The Sox had played 13 innings in Baltimore the night before, then got stalled on the tarmac at Baltimore-Washington International, and didn't trudge into their Fenway house until 7:30 a.m. Every relief pitcher was spent and sleepless.

Ellis Burks, who went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts, noticed that he was not booed.

"It was pretty calm out there, considering how I swung the bat," said the 39-year-old veteran, who managed to sleep a couple of hours in his curtainless apartment by putting a towel over his eyes. "I'm not going to hold on to it. I've been in this game long enough to know better."

Critics will wonder how a team can wind up using a position player on the mound in a three-run game in the ninth inning of the fifth game of the season. Tommy Heinsohn may love David McCarty, but having him pitch in the home opener was certainly not part of the offseason blueprint designed by Theo Epstein.

Young Theo, who was in junior high when Burks first played for the Red Sox, said that what happened yesterday "was really the product of [Thursday] night, and our injury situation. We knew coming in that there was only one path for victory for our bullpen and it backfired on us. It happens. It just usually doesn't happen this early. But I wouldn't overreact. We have seven guys on the disabled list and played 13 innings [Thursday] night. These are unusual circumstances."

Unusual, indeed. The only people who had a worse couple of days than the Red Sox were local weather forecasters, who predicted a cold, rainy day. New England's Doppler Gang had about as much success as Timlin, who coughed up a 5-4 lead, surrendering four hits and three earned runs in the disastrous eighth. We're beginning to wonder if perhaps Timlin (16.20 ERA) is the man most affected by Grady's brain lock in the eighth in the Bronx in October.

Like many Sox employees, Francona never made it home before the home opener (you might have noticed that TV play-by-play man Don Orsillo was unshaven and wearing Thursday's suit again). After watching the sun come up en route to Fenway, Francona took a one-hour nap on his office couch, got up, and made out his lineup card. As far as we know, Francona did not list McCarty as one of his relief pitchers.

In a Moonlight Graham-esque moment, Dr. Jim Lonborg called the Sox to say he had to attend to a dental emergency and would not be able to be part of the pregame parade of legends. It was as if Burt Lancaster himself had called. Noble professions require those choices and Dr./choreographer Charles Steinberg was more than understanding.

It was a stunning 54 degrees when the Super Bowl champions came out from under the big flag on the left-field wall for opening ceremonies. Patriots owner Bob Kraft made a nice ceremonial first toss to Francona, and Tedy Bruschi flung his No. 54 jersey into the seats behind the dugout after the Sox and Patriots hugged and high-fived. Tom Brady was there, but no Ty Law. Big surprise.

The ballpark looked terrific and the new seats in right field are a smash, but with addition there is subtraction. The giant milk bottle is gone (happy day!), but the Red Sox lost some soul by replacing the ancient Jimmy Fund billboard with Budweiser's $14 million sign. Pity.

The only Sox player who got any sleep was starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who left Baltimore ahead of his teammates and went to bed before Thursday night's game ended.

"I didn't know whether we had won or lost until I got to the park," said the young righthander, who gave up four runs on eight hits in six serviceable innings.

It looked as if 34,337 would go home smiling when Jason Varitek homered to give the Sox a 5-4 lead in the sixth, but Toronto's underrated lineup mashed 14 hits, eight for extra bases, and fans behind home plate saw far too much of Kevin Millar, Johnny Damon, and Gabe Kapler running after balls that landed in front of the warning track.

By the ninth, it was an Opening Day freak show with McCarty playing the role of the bearded lady. The Sox hadn't used a position player on the mound since Jimy Williams put Mike "The King" Benjamin into a game in June 1997.

Still, the Nation was patient. They know that Pedro's out there tonight and Curt Schilling tomorrow, and Keith Foulke will be rested enough to pitch. It's too early for the "wait till next year." Fans remain convinced that this is the year, and a team sleepwalking through the home opener did not discourage the great notion.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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