NEW YORK -- David Ortiz looked as if he had just witnessed the second coming of the Messiah. Bowing repeatedly and waving his arms in adulation, Ortiz greeted Johnny Damon's arrival in the Red Sox clubhouse before last night's game by chanting, "Johnny! Johnny!"
Ortiz never made clear whether he was offering the praise because of Damon's resemblance to a spiritual leader. Or Damon's two home runs the night before. Or some other feat by the wild-maned center fielder.
But by the end of the night -- after Jason Varitek had convened a rare, players-only meeting to try to restore his wobbling team's balance -- one thing seemed clear: The Red Sox desperately need some divine intervention.
In another startling example of why they could use immediate assistance from the gloved gods of defense, the Sox committed two more costly errors as they blew a 2-0 lead in the seventh inning and bowed to the Yankees, 4-2, before 55,023 in the Bronx. The jarring loss dropped the Sox 7 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the division, the largest deficit since Grady Little's gang dropped out of contention in late August.
"This was our game to win, but we're finding ways to lose," Damon said. "We've got to find a way to create some luck because we've got no luck and we're not playing great defense. We've got to find a way to win."
In a cruel twist for Ortiz, who began the game with yet another MVP-like performance as he singled and homered to stake the Sox to a 2-0 lead, he squandered the advantage when he booted a bases-loaded grounder by Tony Clark with two outs in the seventh inning, forcing a 2-2 tie. Ortiz was a late replacement at first base as Kevin Millar shifted to right field because Trot Nixon's left quadriceps bothered him.
"I tried to play my best and gave everything I have," Ortiz said, "but at the end of a night like this, it's just frustrating."
Ortiz also factored in an error by Nomar Garciaparra that contributed to the Yankees scoring the decisive run. Ortiz was unable to handle the shortstop's throw on a ground single by Kenny Lofton leading off the bottom of the eighth inning. Garciaparra's miscue, his third in the series, allowed Lofton to reach second.
"It's a play I know I've made in the past, where you go deep to the right," Garciaparra said. "I just threw it over and tried to make a play and it didn't work out."
Lofton advanced to third base on Derek Jeter's sacrifice bunt and scored the winning run on Gary Sheffield's double down the left-field line. Sheffield delivered the death blow in capping a 10-pitch showdown with Mike Timlin.
"This was a tough one," manager Terry Francona said. "We had them where we wanted them. We had our chances to extend the lead and we didn't. Then the way we lose, it's tough. It hurts."
With supercloser Mariano Rivera waiting in the wings, the Yankees scored an insurance run when Hideki Matsui singled off Alan Embree to knock in Sheffield. Rivera then swiftly dispatched the Sox in the ninth to complete the dispiriting defeat.
"This has been a trend," Francona said of the burgeoning defensive crisis. "It's happened more than once where we've made it harder for ourselves to win than we're supposed to."
The latest calamity did nothing to dash the nasty aftertaste of an 11-3 stinker the night before in which the Sox committed three errors and allowed four unearned runs. The Sox have made 67 errors and allowed a major league-leading 60 unearned runs while their opponents have surrendered only 20 earned runs. And in another measure of how badly the defense has struggled, the Sox are on pace to far surpass the 80 unearned runs they allowed all of last year.
"We're in a tough stretch, but we'll battle through," Garciaparra said. "We have confidence in each other and confidence in ourselves. You just keep working through stuff like that."
Tim Wakefield, who was sensational in blanking the Yankees for the first six innings, opened the door for the seventh-inning collapse by throwing a knuckleball off Sheffield's left arm leading off and walking Matsui with one out. At that, Francona replaced him with Scott Williamson despite the knuckleballer's resistance.
"I was very reluctant to give him the ball," Wakefield said. "It's an old cliche, but I just work here."
The point was, Wakefield believed he could escape the mess.
"I got us in that jam and I wanted to try to get us out of it," he said. "It's just the competitor in me, but I didn't get the opportunity."
Francona said he needed a strikeout and summoned his specialist, Williamson, who fanned Bernie Williams for the second out, but walked Jorge Posada to load the bases. Williamson then was lifted for medical reasons, which Francona described as a strained forearm extensor.
"It's awful hard to leave a guy in a game," Francona said, "when your trainers say take him out."
On came Timlin to face Clark. And Clark rifled a grounder directly at Ortiz, who let the ball bounce off his glove and into foul territory for the game-turning error. Ortiz promptly asked for a new glove, giving Francona and others the impression his glove broke. But Ortiz indicated he considered the glove jinxed rather than broken.
"I was supposed to catch the ball," he said. "I don't really know what happened. I don't know if the ball went through my glove or I just missed it. I've got to change [the glove]. I've got to get another one."
The Sox wasted a prime opportunity to break open the game in the seventh when they loaded the bases with no outs and failed to score. In one of the most pivotal sequences of the game, lefthander Felix Heredia rescued the Yankees by holding the Sox scoreless. He pulled it off by getting Damon to ground into a fielder's choice, Mark Bellhorn to pop out, and Ortiz to whiff.
But as desperate as the Sox' situation seemed to some observers after the loss, Timlin and many of his teammates kept their eyes on the division prize.
"People are saying we're only looking for the wild card now, but it's a long season," he said. "I don't like people selling my team out. We may be fighting for a wild card, but so are [the Yankees]. We're looking to win the American League East. That's the bottom line."