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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Traveling band is hitting all the wrong notes

CHICAGO -- Maybe the Red Sox should have played a couple of games at Harvard to get used to all this ivy. Or maybe they're just going through one of those stretches that plague every team in baseball at one time or another. In any event, they remain 0-for-this-century, and last, at Wrigley Field.

Yesterday's 7-6 loss to the Cubs was far more competitive than Friday's blowout, but the Sox couldn't get the job done and the hard facts are that they're 11-16 over the last four weeks, 15-20 on the road, and they rank 12th in team ERA in the American League.

This isn't how you get yourself another one of those trophies.

Cubs management and fans have done everything to accommodate the traveling band from Boston. You can wear Sox garb anywhere in town without fear of an ugly incident. No fights. No signs of trophy envy. No vulgar chants. They even played ''Sweet Caroline" between innings to make everyone from Boston feel at home.

Meanwhile, the long-suffering Cubbies have picked the Sox' pockets twice, crushing a whopping 32 hits in only 16 innings.

The Sox had a chance to tie the game, maybe even win when Trot Nixon came up with one on and two out in the ninth. Boston already had scored twice to pull within a run and Nixon had a three-run homer and a single on his resume. Alas, he went for a 2-and-1 pitch and popped to the third baseman.

Sitting in front of his locker, Nixon was a sad figure after the tough loss. No one plays baseball with more fury than Nixon (not since Kirk Gibson, at least) and Nixon was the one who blamed himself for the loss. His frustrating final out was not unlike Yaz's popup against Rich Gossage that closed the curtain on the 1978 playoff game.

Manager Terry Francona and captain Jason Varitek found comfort in Boston's play yesterday, but Nixon was having none of that, after he failed against righty Ryan Dempster in the ninth.

Did he see anything positive from the Sox' two-run rally in the ninth?

''No," he said, staring straight into his locker. ''A loss is a loss. This doesn't mean much."

What was the pitch?

''A splitter or something," he said. ''It wasn't what I was expecting."

Thousands of New England road-trippers weren't expecting to see their team lose two straight to the Cubs and now Tim Wakefield is the only thing standing in the way of an embarrassing sweep in the Sox' first visit to Wrigley.

''Today we played much better," said Varitek. ''We just didn't get a break. But I'll take this effort and the at-bats we had every day. Bellhorn's ball [Mark Bellhorn flied deep to right with one on and two out in the eighth] would have hit the apartments on Friday. Then in the ninth, we had some good at bats. Matt [Mantei] made good pitches in the eighth. He didn't give in. We did the right things. When you score two in the [ninth], you take something out of that. To me, it's a good sign of not quitting."

The captain said all the right things, but he and his teammates know they'll come home to the wrath of a Nation if they drop another one tonight. The Sox have been outscored, 37-19, on this 1-4 trip. They are only three games over .500 and still looking up at the Orioles.

Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez, who had a big double in the ninth, continues to struggle (two more strikeouts) and is hitting a Zupcic-like .248. Manny's bash brother, David Ortiz, has MVP-caliber numbers, but yesterday he hurt the team when he failed to run on a two-out, swinging strike three that skipped behind Cubs catcher Henry Blanco. Ortiz probably could have made it to first ahead of Blanco's throw, which would have loaded the bases for Manny. Instead, he posed for a painting while Blanco scurried after the ball and made the long throw from the grass in front of the backstop.

''David didn't see the ball," said the ever-forgiving Francona.

That's the way it's going for the world champs right now. They're not getting any pitching, they're not getting many breaks, and they're occasionally hurting themselves with mental errors.

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who was in Chicago with the team, doesn't sound like he plans to stand by and let the season slip away. ''It's obvious we need help with our pitching," Epstein said last night.

Zero-for-Wrigley. Still. Tonight is the Red Sox' last chance to win in the face of the poison ivy and reward all the people who waited so long and spent so much to see these hardballs cousins play one another for the first time since 1918.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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