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Red flag turns into white one

When pitchers, catchers, and coaches are preparing a game plan for the pitcher, there's always at least one red flag. Before yesterday's 8-4 Red Sox loss to the Kansas City Royals, that red flag was Mike Sweeney. Sweeney, Kansas City's righthanded No. 3 hitter, whose .307 career average is tops in Royals history (yes, even higher than George Brett's .305) entered the game hitting .429 with three RBIs in 14 at-bats against Derek Lowe. Everyone from Lowe to catcher Jason Varitek to the coaches to manager Terry Francona knew he was the hitter who most needed to be neutralized in key situations.

The Sox ended up walking him intentionally three times, tying an American League record held by many. But the one time they didn't walk him was in the third inning, with two outs, two on, and they paid. Sweeney slammed a fastball that stayed too high in the strike zone between third baseman Bill Mueller and the line into left, driving in two, tying the game at 2, and giving the Royals momentum they never would lose in salvaging the finale of the three-game series.

In the third, Lowe had walked No. 8 hitter Desi Relaford and David DeJesus then tapped to first, from where David McCarty had the lead runner dead to rights only to have shortstop Pokey Reese pull off the bag. Sometimes the infielder will get that call, but umpire Joe West said no, resulting in a Reese error.

After Lowe fanned Angel Berroa, he got Carlos Beltran, another dangerous hitter, to ground to first, advancing the runners into scoring position. Up came Sweeney.

Francona, in his short time here, has shown he's always well-prepared and has a viable explanation for his actions. He explained his move thusly: "At that point in the game [Lowe] wasn't commanding very well, so you're hesitant to walk the bases loaded. Wally [pitching coach Dave Wallace] went out there, and I kind of like the idea of putting it in a hitter's head, who knows what you are going to do? And [Lowe] really made two good pitches and the third one didn't get in where he wanted it to."

When Wallace strolled to the mound, he told Lowe, among other things, not to give Sweeney anything good to hit. Lowe actually got ahead of him, 1-and-2, and almost escaped the predicament but couldn't pull it off.

There it was. The open base. Sweeney up. What do you do? Fans throughout Red Sox Nation must have been saying, "Walk him. Walk him." "You always have a plan of attack," Wallace said. "A lot of times a couple of ground balls takes the sting out of a guy's bat. The ball Sweeney hit just got by Mueller. [Lowe] threw a ground ball, that's all you can do."

"I saw their pitching coach going up to D-Lowe and was talking to him," Sweeney said. "In my mind I'm thinking maybe he just told him `Hey, make your pitch.' They had a base open and Derek Lowe's a great pitcher. One of the best in the game. He pitched well until that last inning. He's a warrior out there and we're very fortunate to get a win." The Sox played it differently on Sweeney, who had singled in the first, the rest of the way. In the fifth inning, with two outs, Beltran singled to left and with Sweeney at the plate, Beltran stole second. With the count 3-0 to Sweeney, the Sox put him on and got Matt Stairs to ground out for the third out.

In the sixth, after Beltran had cleared the bases with a double to left hitting righthanded against lefthander Mark Malaska, the Sox put Sweeney on, setting up the lefty-vs.-lefty battle between Malaska and Stairs. Stairs obliged by striking out.

And in the eighth, after Beltran had knocked in another run on a ground-rule double to left, Sweeney again was intentionally walked with lefthander Lenny DiNardo on the mound. Stairs flied to center.

"I've been walked three times before, but not intentionally," Sweeney said. "People in Boston know the great hitter Matt Stairs is from his time in Boston, so the next time Matt's gonna do the job. Sooner or later he's going to get you." It was Beltran who did the most damage after Sweeney set the tone. The young star center fielder, rumored to be a possible Red Sox or Yankee acquisition perhaps as early as the trading deadline this season, said he thought Francona did a good job turning him around to bat righthanded in the sixth. Unfortunately for Francona, who never could have known this, Beltran said he actually was feeling better swinging righthanded as opposed to lefthanded. The result was another big blow in the game.

"Today it was backwards for me," Beltran said. "Sometimes I feel good from both sides, sometimes from the left side." As much as Francona and Wallace thought they had made the right decisions on Sweeney and Beltran, baseball has a way of turning the tables on you. And yesterday was one of those days. 

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