There was no good reason to leave early last night at Fenway Park. The weather was great, the game was played at a relatively brisk pace, Super Bowl coach Bill Belichick was in the house, and so was the Cleveland Indians' bullpen, for whom no lead is too big to blow.
Whether the 35,371 on hand last night were aware of how poorly the Tribe pen has performed this season is debatable, though they need only have reviewed what happened Tuesday night to know that sticking around was advisable. The Sox had staged a late-inning rally against a Cleveland relief corps that took a 5-12 record and 7.09 ERA into last night's game, and had nine blown saves in 13 opportunities. Eleven times this season, the Indians were either tied or leading in the seventh inning, and lost.
Form very nearly held, as the Sox scored twice in the ninth before succumbing, 6-4, leaving them with a 3-3 split of this six-game homestand as they begin a stretch of seven consecutive games on artificial turf, four in Toronto and three in Tampa.
"We were right there," Sox first baseman Kevin Millar said after the Indians won the rubber game of their three-game set, "and just didn't get it done. But we had the tying run at the plate."
That would be second baseman Mark Bellhorn, after the Sox had scored twice off Indians closer Rafael Betancourt on doubles by Bill Mueller and pinch hitter Brian Daubach, and a bleeder up the middle by Johnny Damon that neither shortstop Omar Vizquel nor second baseman Ronnie Belliard offered at.
"They miscommunicated," Indians manager Eric Wedge said.
But Betancourt had the final say, as Bellhorn struck out for the third time and 40th time this season, most in the majors, and in only 113 at-bats.
"Any time you see a lot of pitches and go deep in the count, you're going to strike out some," said Bellhorn, who also has walked a league-leading 29 times. "But I wasn't looking for a walk there. In that situation, you definitely want to hit. I was looking for my pitch, but Betancourt pitched me pretty tough."
Despite a four-run advantage the Indians had built against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield through the first six innings, there was still the thought the Sox were merely positioning themselves for another comeback. No one on the home side was disappointed when Cleveland lefthander Cliff Lee was lifted after six innings, having allowed only a run in the first on Manny Ramirez's two-out double and another in the sixth on doubles by Kevin Millar and Doug Mirabelli.
But Lee, a product of a school (University of Arkansas) better known for producing football and basketball players than baseball players (he is one of five former Razorbacks in the big leagues), left here with a 4-0 record, as two other members of the Indians' bullpen held the Sox at bay before Betancourt. Indians reliever David Riske survived third baseman Lou Merloni's error to pitch a scoreless seventh, inducing Damon to ground into only his second double play this season, and Double-Zero Rick White breezed through the heart of the Sox order in the eighth, retiring David Ortiz, Ramirez, and Millar on fly balls.
These young Indians can hit -- their .281 average is fourth best in the league, and only three American League teams -- the Angels, Rangers, and Tigers -- have scored more runs. Outfielder Jody Gerut, who was fourth last season in Rookie of the Year balloting and might have been jobbed, had three hits, extending his hitting streak to 15 games, and would have had a fourth if not for a diving catch by Damon. They also took liberties on the bases, stealing three bags, and were helped by three Sox throwing errors, one each by Mirabelli, Wakefield, and reliever Lenny DiNardo. "I felt like we needed to be very aggressive on the bases early," Wedge said.
The Indians did not score twice in the first inning, as they improbably had done in each of their previous six games against the Sox this season, but they did manage to grab a 1-0 lead on their first at-bat. Bellhorn couldn't handle Vizquel's one-hop smash right at him. Vizquel was credited with a hit, and he took third on Gerut's hit-and-run single. Alex Escobar followed with another base hit to score Vizquel, before Wakefield retired Travis Hafner and Belliard to escape further damage.
The Sox tied it in the bottom of the inning, a rally that was cut short when third base coach Dale Sveum elected to wave home Ramirez on Mueller's line single to left, even though left fielder Matt Lawton was playing at medium depth and had gloved the ball with Ramirez still a step short of third base.
The Indians scored single runs in the second, third, and fifth. In the second, after Ben Broussard walked, Wakefield struck out the next two batters, Merloni and Tim Laker, but Broussard stole second, then took third when Wakefield's pickoff attempt deflected off the base runner into center field. He then scored on Lawton's RBI single to make it 2-1.
In the third, Gerut tripled into the right-field corner and scored on Hafner's sacrifice fly. In the fifth, Lawton was hit by a pitch, stole second, advanced to third on a throwing error by Mirabelli, and scored on Vizquel's bloop single. Damon spared Wakefield further damage -- and himself a nasty headache -- by making a terrific sliding catch of Gerut's liner while avoiding a collision with right fielder Gabe Kapler.
With two outs and nobody on in the sixth, Merloni cracked a double off the Monster, and Laker, the No. 9 batter, hit Wakefield's next pitch to the back rows of the Monster to make it 6-1.
The Sox head north still in first place, the Yankees having been trounced by the Angels to remain a half-game back. "We feel we have a chance to win every game," Damon said of leaving home with only a split, "so yeah, we're definitely upset."