Your eyes tell you playing baseball is a monumental struggle for Edgar Renteria and Manny Ramirez these days, but then you hear Red Sox captain Jason Varitek say Renteria is ''just about there," and you listen to manager Terry Francona's spin, that Ramirez's swings late in last night's 7-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves could be a sign of his renaissance.
Is it wishful thinking or are they seeing something the rest of us don't?
On a rainy night in a game delayed 30 minutes at the start, Renteria committed two of the Sox' four errors, one fielding, one throwing (in the first and sixth innings on balls hit by Rafael Furcal), while going 1 for 5 with two strikeouts, the second resulting in him being ejected by plate umpire Andy Fletcher.
Renteria, batting .245 and again hearing the boos, disputed Fletcher's call on a pitch that was clearly strike three from former Sox farmhand Chris Reitsma. Renteria had to be restrained by David Ortiz, who had disputed a called third strike in the first inning.
''I think Edgar and David early in the game . . . we take so much pride in making pitchers come onto the plate, and I think they both thought those balls were a little bit off," said Francona. ''When they get pitches they feel are a little bit off, especially with runners on base, it's frustrating for them."
Renteria's only hit was a seventh-inning double with nobody aboard, while his other at-bats all resulted in outs with runners on base.
Ramirez went 1 for 5 but knocked in two runs to raise his season total to 36. He grounded into a fielder's choice in the seventh to plate a run and doubled off the left-field wall in the ninth to drive in Boston's fourth run.
Varitek felt they were signs of players getting good at-bats and building a foundation for good stretches to come.
Varitek caught knuckleballer Tim Wakefield last night because Doug Mirabelli, who normally gets that assignment, is on the disabled list with a wrist injury. Wakefield and Varitek agreed the pitcher had a good knuckleball last night, but Wakefield wasn't able to make quality pitches when they counted most, and was outdone by 21-year-old Braves righthander Kyle Davies, who was making his major league debut.
''The fifth inning really dictated the whole game for us," Wakefield said. ''I think some of the balls weren't hit very hard, and I couldn't stop the bleeding. That at-bat that [Julio] Franco hit the ball over Johnny [Damon's] head, that was the damage that needed to be done for them."
The Braves, already leading, 2-0, entering the inning, got four runs on four hits, including the 46-year-old Franco's run-scoring double to center, before Wakefield got No. 9 hitter Raul Mondesi to pop out to Mark Bellhorn at second base.
A Wakefield wild pitch plated a run after a double to right by Marcus Giles and a bloop single to left by Chipper Jones. Wakefield then walked Adam LaRoche and struck out Andruw Jones, who fanned four times. But Johnny Estrada hit an RBI single, making it 4-0, and Franco legged out his double to drive in Atlanta's fifth run. A sacrifice fly to left by Brian Jordan scored Estrada, and the Braves had a 6-0 lead
Davies, who was 2-1 with a 4.78 ERA at Triple A Richmond, had been struggling with his offspeed stuff, according to Francona's scouting report, but such was not the case last night, when he had a superb changeup the veteran Sox hitters couldn't touch. He lasted five innings and allowed four hits and three walks while striking out six.
''He's our best pitching prospect," Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz said. ''We're excited about his future."
''I'd rather have not been impressed," said Francona. ''When he left with the lead like that, he deserved it."
Trot Nixon made a pair of superb plays in right field early in the game. He tumbled into the stands to snare Giles's fly down the line in the first inning, and two batters later, Nixon made a leaping catch while backing up to the warning track to rob LaRoche of extra bases.
Nixon attempted to make a diving catch coming in on a ball Giles hit in the third, but it got by him for a double, and Giles eventually scored on Chipper Jones's single.
While the Sox scored five runs after the fifth inning, it was a night of missed opportunities when the game was on the line.
Damon (3 for 4) was at second base with no outs after a single and wild pitch in the first, and got to third on Renteria's fly to right. But Ortiz struck out and Ramirez lined out to right field.
The Sox had runners at first and second with one out in the third, but Renteria popped to shortstop and Ortiz grounded into a fielder's choice. They put two on with two outs in the fourth, but Bill Mueller grounded out to second to end the inning. And after a walk to Damon and a single to right by Ortiz, Ramirez struck out on a pitch high and outside to retire the side in the fifth.
Even in the sixth, when Kevin Millar knocked in Nixon with a single to right, Mueller bounced into a double play (plating the Sox' second run) and Bellhorn popped to third to end what might have been a big inning.
Amid the raw conditions, it was hard to find a silver lining. But Varitek and Francona see big things ahead for Renteria and Ramirez.