Perfection elusive for Sox
They falter in finale of homestand
Pokey Reese was peeved. Mark Bellhorn was miffed. Keith Foulke seemed so mad at himself that he might take a bite out of his right arm. And while manager Terry Francona made little secret of his unhappiness, general manager Theo Epstein hardly needed to utter a word. His clenched jaw and stern demeanor said plenty.
The Red Sox suffered a stinging loss yesterday in their last game before the All-Star break. There was no escaping the fact after a couple of questionable calls involving Reese and Bellhorn and a pitching lapse by Foulke contributed to a 6-5 defeat before 34,778 at Fenway Park.
"We're definitely upset," said Johnny Damon, who capped a stirring comeback attempt by homering in the seventh inning to force a 5-5 tie before the effort went for naught. "We know they're a good team over there, but we felt we should have won the game."
The loss dropped the Sox seven games behind the Yankees in the American League East, their largest deficit at the break since they faced an 11-game gap in 1998. But just as the '98 Sox went on to win the wild-card berth, the '04 crew entered the break feeling pretty good about itself, despite the unfortunate first-half finale. The Sox lead the A's by one game in the wild-card race.
"We didn't dig ourselves a hole too deep to climb out of," Epstein said. "We're very well positioned to get in [the playoffs] if we play good baseball. That's all you can do. We withstood some adversity and ended on a positive note, besides today."
After playing much of the first half without a third of their regular lineup because of injuries to Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon, and Bill Mueller, the Sox entered the break at 48-38, their worst mark through 86 games since they went 44-42 in 2000. They were 50-36 last year, 53-33 in '02, and 51-35 in '01.
But the '04 Sox have flourished since they began playing with their full lineup Tuesday for the first team this season, running off five straight wins before yesterday's disappointment.
"I like the way our team is set up right now," said Tim Wakefield, who went six innings and surrendered the first five runs. "Everybody's healthy, we played some great baseball this homestand, and I think we still have a lot of momentum. We've just got to keep it rolling."
That should be easy if they continue leading the league in ERA (3.89) and hitting like they did in batting .310 over the final 23 games before the break. They have two of the top MVP candidates in All-Stars Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, though the Sox played without Ramirez in the starting lineup for the third straight year in the final game before the All-Star break, this time after he cited sore hamstrings (he popped to shallow right in the ninth inning as a pinch hitter).
Ramirez finished the first half with a league-best 26 homers, more than any Sox player in history but Carl Yastrzemski, who slugged 29 before the break in 1969. And Ortiz hit the break leading the league with 78 RBIs, which only five Sox players have exceeded in the first half, including the team's all-time leader, Jimmie Foxx, who knocked in 89 runs before the break in 1938 en route to driving in 175.
With Garciaparra thriving (he has hit .487 in the first 10 games of the month) and Mueller batting .407 since he returned from the disabled list while Nixon tries to regain his form, the Sox have had plenty of help from Damon and Bellhorn, who combined to score 132 runs and knock in 96 over the first 86 games.
"We're in a decent position now," Bellhorn said. "I know we're not in first place in the division, but we're easily within striking distance if we get on a roll."
If Derek Lowe and Bronson Arroyo pitch as well as they did in their last outings, they could help Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and Wakefield keep it rolling. The Sox logged a 2.28 ERA in going 5-1 on the homestand.
"I think if we play the way we're capable of playing we'll be fine, we'll be a postseason team," Epstein said. "If we struggle the way we did through May [16-14] and June [11-14], we won't be."
The Sox showed some of the resilience yesterday that distinguished them last year. Trailing, 5-2, in the seventh, they surged back on a two-run homer by Doug Mirabelli and Damon's tying shot, which extended his hitting streak to 16 games.
But then Foulke ran into trouble. Starting the eighth inning, he surrendered a single to Rod Barajas, a double off the Monster to Michael Young, and a sacrifice fly to left by Alfonso Soriano for the decisive run.
"I pitched like [expletive]," Foulke said. "I don't know what else to say. It's my fault."
Foulke's futility left the Sox to try to climb back against All-Star closer Francisco Cordero, whose slider is nearly as nasty as his fastball, which topped out at 99 miles per hour. Batting cleanup in Ramirez's absence, Garciaparra gave the Sox a chance by singling to lead off the eighth and stealing second base as Nixon fanned. Francona had sent out Ramirez to bat for Kevin Millar, but after Garciaparra stole second, Francona was so certain the Rangers would intentionally walk Ramirez that he called him back to the dugout. At that, Millar popped out and David McCarty struck out to end the opportunity.
Still, the Sox had another chance in the ninth. Mueller provided it by drawing a walk off Cordero leading off. With Reese running for Mueller, Francona dispatched Ramirez to hit for Mirabelli.
Trouble was, Ramirez popped out, just moments before first base umpire Randy Marsh ruled that Cordero picked off Reese with Damon at the plate.
Replays appeared to show Reese beat the throw. Reese acknowledged that Cordero caught him leaning as he prepared to try to steal second, but he insisted he dived back to first base and touched the bag before Mark Teixeira tagged him.
"He just blew the call, that's all you can say," Reese said. "I saw the replay."
After Francona argued to no avail, Damon kept hope alive by reaching on a bobble by third baseman Hank Blalock. Damon then stole second and reached third on a throwing error by catcher Danny Ardoin. That cleared the way for Bellhorn to battle Cordero to a 3-2 count before plate ump Paul Nauert called Bellhorn out looking at a third strike, stranding Damon.
Francona, believing the pitch was low and away, described the call as "horrendous," while Bellhorn was a bit more diplomatic.
"That was kind of a tough one," Bellhorn said. "I know with two strikes you have to expand the zone a little bit, but I thought it was pretty much down and away."
Too late. The game was over. The first half was history. And the Sox scattered across the hemisphere, preparing to reconvene Thursday for a six-game swing through Anaheim and Seattle.
"We played good enough this homestand where we kind of played ourselves back into feeling like we're a decent club," Francona said. "Now we've got to keep going. It's just the beginning."