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A'S 6, RED SOX 2

Hurting Red Sox are limping home

Adversity, Terry Francona has contended this week, will make the Sox better. Always has, at least in his time here. But, adversity has taken on the form of less-than-ideal health and creeping fatigue, a potentially dangerous mix.

''This stretch of 30 straight days [with a game] is killing guys, is killing the energy," said Johnny Damon, whose attempts at throwing from the outfield last night served as the most extreme (and painful) illustration. ''It just gets zapped."

Perhaps the Sox need to be excused a day for managing just seven hits (five of them singles) and going 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position in a 6-2 defeat to Oakland at Fenway Park, usually a hitter's Cape Canaveral. They left Toronto late Wednesday night and traveled into the overnight hours, the stress of a six-game trip compounded by the loss of spirited teammate Gabe Kapler.

But, perhaps, this exhaustion is something more than momentary. Twenty-four days into this test of body, mind, and will, the Sox are 14-10, with an offday coming Thursday in Baltimore. But, they have to play baseball in the interim, and last night they looked like a team wearing down, at the same time the Yankees are coming.

Owned by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays most of this season (11 losses in 16 games before this week), the Yankees scored eight unanswered runs last night to beat Tampa Bay, 9-5, and sweep a three-game series, outscoring the Rays, 32-13. The Bombers pulled within 1 1/2 games in the AL East, the closest they've been since Aug. 29. Meanwhile, the A's pulled into a first-place tie with Los Angeles in the West. The Angels were beaten by the Tigers at home, 8-6, last night.

''It's ours to lose," Damon said. ''We have a good enough team to get there."

Good enough, when healthy. But the wear and tear is visible in many corners of the clubhouse and the park.

It was visible in center field, where Kapler might have been had he not ruptured his Achilles' tendon Wednesday night. Damon struggled mightily to throw, requiring Edgar Renteria to cut off his throws in shallow center field and allowing the A's to take the extra base and score the extra run.

''I'm going to keep playing through it," Damon said. ''I think the team needs me to. It kills me. But we need to win ballgames. I feel me being in there gives us our best chance."

It was visible at the plate, where Renteria, after a day off Wednesday, went 0 for 4, is 1 for his last 18, and is batting .175 (10 for 57) in September. Jason Varitek also went 0 for 4. He has just six hits in September, his struggles reaching the point that he came up with runners on first and second in the sixth inning, the Sox behind, 3-1, and attempted to push a bunt down the third base line.

It was visible on the mound, where Curt Schilling wasn't the same pitcher he was five days earlier in New York. That Schilling was working in the mid-90s with his fastball, offset with a lost-but-found splitter. Last night, Schilling was back to pitching in the high 80s and low 90s, able to reach 93 miles per hour only on a few occasions when he needed it most. As a result of velocity and location, he allowed seven of his 11 hits off fastballs (he provided that stat).

He was tagged for four runs over 6 2/3 innings, and suffered the loss. Righthanded hitters went 8 for 18 off the big righthander.

Schilling was behind, 2-0, after just five pitches -- Mark Ellis single, Jason Kendall double, Mark Kotsay two-run single -- and fell behind the next batter, Eric Chavez, 3 and 0. The A's, it seems, came with a plan, one counterintuitive to anyone who has read Michael Lewis's ''Moneyball."

''Eleven hits in seven innings, [six] of them on the first two pitches against a team that notoriously works the count," said Schilling (6-8, 6.20 ERA), who allowed 14 base runners. ''I had a feeling coming into this game [that] if they watched my last start they would see how many first-pitch fastballs I was throwing and how many balls I left over the middle of the plate. They were aggressive."

Schilling was followed by Mike Myers (two-thirds of an inning) and Chad Bradford (one-third). Myers allowed a hit and a run, Bradford two hits and a run. The two specialists in the Sox pen, though, haven't gotten enough work of late to be sharp.

The numbers bear out: Bradford, since Sept. 3, has pitched four times, allowing three runs on four hits in 1 2/3 innings. Myers, dating to Aug. 31, has appeared only three times, allowing a run on three hits in one inning.

Bradford, who relieved Myers with a runner on in the seventh, allowed two run-scoring hits, the second the bloop hit of all bloop hits.

Meanwhile, the Sox couldn't muster much against Oakland's Joe Blanton -- the AL's rookie leader in batting average against (.239) and second in ERA (3.60) coming into last night's game. The AL Rookie of the Month for August (7 G, 3-1, 1.17 ERA), Blanton limited the Sox to two runs on six hits and two walks.

But no, Schilling contended, the panic has not set in.

''We still control every bit of our destiny," he said. ''We knew this thing wasn't going to play itself out until the end."

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