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Sox bats hit wall

Offense, streak are stopped cold

It was all too good, far too good to continue. The wins, 12 in 13 games. The hits, 10 or more in 12 of 13 games. The starting pitching, 9-0 with a 2.20 ERA in those 13 games. The 96-36 cumulative score. The paranoia that was coming to grip George Steinbrenner.

The 74-year-old Boss, who will preside over a summit of Yankee executives today in Tampa, decided yesterday, while lifting weights, to tell his publicist, Howard Rubenstein, to let the world know that ''my patience is a little short by the fact that the team is not performing up to its great capabilities. The players have to want to win as much as I do."

That wasn't the problem for the Red Sox. They wanted it plenty last night. It was their collective execution that failed them and brought their seven-game unbeaten streak to a quiet, rather unceremonious halt.

Indians 7, Red Sox 0.

The symmetry had to be pleasing to Eric Wedge's team. A week ago last night, the Sox dropped into Jacobs Field and topped the home club, 10-9, ending the Indians' streak of nine consecutive wins, the best in baseball. Similarly, the Sox had baseball's longest active streak entering last night, when they were shut out for the second time in three home games after going 116 straight without being blanked in the Back Bay.

''We just played a bad ballgame," said captain Jason Varitek, who rather concisely bottled his team's collective feeling.

The Sox had nearly as many errors (two) as hits (three), and at least two players (Mark Bellhorn and Trot Nixon) went home last night thinking that, if not for their miscues, this could have been a vastly different game. And it could have. Bronson Arroyo left after 6 2/3 innings behind, 7-0, though, without doing anything differently, he could have exited down just 2-0.

The game-changing play came in the fourth, when Cleveland loaded the bases with one out on a Travis Hafner double and two walks. Ben Broussard coaxed the second of those walks out of an 11-pitch at-bat after falling behind 0 and 2.

Ronnie Belliard, the next batter, hit a hard shot to third baseman Bill Mueller. He fielded the bouncer fine, and his throw was completely adequate, beginning a 5-4- . . .

''If it tails at all, and he doesn't look it into his glove, you saw what happened," Francona said. ''And that's very uncharacteristic."

What should have been an inning-ending double play fell apart when the ball caromed off Bellhorn's glove into right field. Two runs scored on the play, and another on Jody Gerut's RBI ground out, staking Cleveland to a 3-0 lead.

''It was a big point in the game, and probably the turning point," Bellhorn said. ''That was probably my fault."

The Indians -- owners of baseball's best record since May 9 (28-16) -- plated another run in the fifth on a Coco Crisp single and another double by Travis Hafner (3 for 5, HR, 2 RBIs).

In the seventh, Arroyo gave up two home runs, a two-run shot by Grady Sizemore on pitch No. 104 and an absolute blast by Hafner on No. 107, that being his last. But the two-run job by Sizemore was Canseco-esque. It didn't come down on Nixon's coconut and bounce into the bullpen, but it was close.

''When he first hit it, I thought he hit it out of the park," Arroyo said. ''But it had kind of a funny sound off the bat, so I was hoping he didn't quite get it. I thought for sure Trot was going to catch it."

If Nixon hadn't caught the ball, it would have hit either the back of the warning track or the fence. Instead, it hit his glove, and, as Arroyo pointed out, ''it just shot over him."

No one was shooting anything -- be it a glance at, or the breeze with -- Nixon back on the bench after his miscue allowed the Indians to make it 6-0.

''Stuff like that with Trot, I don't go ask him," Francona said. ''He'll wring somebody's neck. I'm sure once the anger wears off some guys will be getting on him, but probably not tonight."

That unsettled Arroyo, who recorded an out, threw a pitch to Hafner, then delivered a hanger that Hafner clobbered. The ball came down a good 10 rows beyond the Sox bullpen, just above the Exit sign to the tunnel between Sections 41 and 42 of the bleachers.

''I felt like I had good stuff, I felt like I was commanding the game, even though they scored seven runs," Arroyo said.

He pretty much did, but when you give up more runs (seven) than hits (six), either you walked a bunch of guys or your defense let you down. Arroyo walked only three, but all three scored.

His counterpart, Kevin Millwood, was next to unhittable. Millwood's velocity was good -- 94 to 95 -- and he was throwing a devastating sinker that was starting in at a lefthanded hitter's hip and cutting back over the plate.

''When a guy's throwing the ball as well as Millwood, once you're down 4-0, you panic a little at the plate and have a little harder time focusing on just getting one or two runs," Arroyo said.

The Sox had the chance to make this a far different game early on. Millwood (6 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 6 Ks) turned Johnny Damon's bat into woodchips leading off the first, but Damon still reached by legging out an infield single. He stole second, and Millwood walked Edgar Renteria, putting two on with no out. David Ortiz flied to center, advancing Damon to third, but he was stranded there.

Manny Ramirez grounded to third baseman Aaron Boone. Nixon then grounded to first to end the inning.

''Once we got through that first inning, we didn't do anything," Francona said.

These are key starts for Arroyo, at least if Francona has not yet made up his mind on the who-goes-to-the-bullpen-when-Curt-Schilling-comes-back issue. Arroyo's looking at two more starts -- Friday vs. Toronto and Wednesday at Texas -- before Schilling's anticipated July 9 reentry.

Does he consciously think about it?

''Between starts, working out in between, as it gets closer to that date and Curt's coming, yeah, guys talk a little bit, we talk amongst ourselves," Arroyo said. ''Nothing that's bothering me when I'm pitching."

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