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Braves take fifth, thrash Red Sox

ATLANTA -- The way the walls are falling around them, May 27 may be a date that lives in infamy for the 2004 Red Sox. They awakened at home that morning with a five-game winning streak and a 1 1/2-game lead in the American League East, only to walk into a 15-2 ambush against the A's and suffer their most lopsided loss in nearly four years.

Since that fateful night in the Fens, the Sox have gone 14-20 and plunged 7 1/2 games behind the Yankees, a stunning fade for a team many favored to win the World Series.

All the Sox could do yesterday after a deflating 1-5 trek through New York and Atlanta was hope their latest lopsided defeat, a 10-4 crusher to the Braves, would serve as a chapter-closing bookend to the May 27 debacle. But hope was hard to come by after yet another maddening meltdown by Derek Lowe.

In a jarring collapse that inspired the harshest public comments to date by manager Terry Francona about one of his players, Lowe utterly squandered a 4-1 lead by allowing the Braves seven runs in the fifth inning before 41,414 at Turner Field. The Braves scored two more runs in the frame against Jimmy Anderson in his Sox debut.

"It can't happen," Francona said, referring to Lowe's sudden loss of effectiveness. "He's got a pitching coach that has confidence in him. He has a manager that has confidence in him. I think he has [teammates] who have confidence in him. But at some point he has to do it."

Lowe, who has managed only five quality starts in 16 outings and has allowed at least seven runs in six of them, surrendered a career-high eight earned runs in just 4 1/3 innings. Last Tuesday, he coughed up a career-high nine runs in an 11-3 loss to the Yankees. His ERA over his last three starts is a whopping 9.37.

Asked if he has considered moving Lowe to the bullpen, Francona said, "Who are you going to start? If you come up with a guy who can win a lot of games . . . "

Francona left the rest unspoken, though his patience with Lowe's inconsistency has grown short.

"It's happened a lot. Too much," Francona said. "Today we're in a game where we need to win desperately and come off a horrible road trip with a chance to win two in a row, but one inning and the game is out of reach."

As a consequence, the Sox flew home trailing the Rangers by 2 1/2 games in the wild-card race and leading the third-place Devil Rays by only 2 1/2 games in the division. They have lost five of their last six series, hardly a recipe for success.

Lowe was not available to explain how things went so wrong so fast. After dominating the Braves for the first four innings, he began the mess by issuing a leadoff walk to Andruw Jones after getting ahead, 0-2. Then Charles Thomas topped a ball off the plate for an infield single, moving Jones to second. Lowe should have still been in command, but instead he began to falter.

"That chopper is going to happen with Derek because he's good," Francona said. "If they keep doing that, they're not going to score a lot of runs. But once you start walking people, then the floodgates open."

Lowe responded by throwing four straight balls to Eddie Perez, who entered the game batting .192, to load the bases. Then Atlanta starter Mike Hampton bounced into a fielder's choice to make it 4-2.

"Even at 4-2, we feel good," Francona said. "But 10 minutes later, the game is out of reach."

In rapid succession, Lowe surrendered run-scoring singles to Rafael Furcal and Nick Green, a two-run double to J.D. Drew, and a two-run homer to Chipper Jones. He threw only nine pitches to the four batters.

"We weren't able to re-adjust," catcher Jason Varitek said. "He just couldn't get out of that inning."

The scenario has become frustratingly familiar for the Sox, who remain baffled about how to reverse Lowe's fortunes. He dropped to 6-8 with a 6.02 ERA.

"We're all searching," Francona said. "And we certainly haven't found the answer. That's quite obvious."

Varitek, who has caught Lowe since their days in Seattle's farm system, seemed as perplexed as anyone.

"It's probably most frustrating for him, but this team needs him," Varitek said.

Anderson added fuel to the fire by walking the first batter he faced before allowing a double to Andruw Jones and a two-run triple to Thomas. By the time Anderson fanned Perez and Hampton, the Braves had sent 13 batters to the plate and scored the most runs in an inning against the Sox since the Yankees tallied nine in the eighth at Fenway Park in a 22-1 blowout June 19, 2000.

The onslaught nullified an RBI double by Lowe in the second and a three-run rally in the third. Johnny Damon singled to left off Hampton to start the rally and motored to third on Mark Bellhorn's double before the Braves intentionally walked Nomar Garciaparra to load the bases.

"They were in a bind," Francona said. "[Atlanta manager] Bobby Cox is no dummy. Nomar had hit every ball on the barrel in the last four games. That's a bad spot to be in."

It got worse when Manny Ramirez ripped a two-run double to right-center. The Sox scored another run on a ground out by Varitek. But after Lowe dug them a gaping hole, the Sox produced next to nothing, though they insisted it was not from lack of effort.

"This is a battling team," Kevin Millar said. "This is when you judge your character, when you're doing bad. It's easy to come to the field when you're on top of the world. Now, it's a chance to gut-check yourself, look in the mirror, and find a way to win."

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