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Can't catch a break

Passed balls by Bard help Indians run off with win

CLEVELAND -- In a Red Sox clubhouse quiet except for the sound of men eating, in the wake of four Josh Bard passed balls, and in the absence of enough offense to mask the catching deficiencies, there was one man capable of empathizing with Bard.

''I had five," Jason Varitek said of the May 28, 1999, game, also here at Jacobs Field, when he came within one passed ball of equaling the major league record. Six years later, he'd win a Gold Glove.

However, the Sox don't have six years to wait. Tim Wakefield's turn comes due again Monday, at Fenway Park, in the first meeting of the season with the Yankees. Between now and then, there is work to be done, for Bard and for the Sox' offense. In the meantime, Wakefield continues to stand behind his receiver, even after last night's 7-1 loss to the Indians before 21,575 at the Jake.

''I'm not disappointed in him at all," Wakefield said, after answering several questions about Bard, whose miscues accounted for two unearned runs. ''He's not the reason we're losing, or I'm losing. So get off of him. Right now."

The other lingering reason is the lack of offense.

''The fact of the matter, I hate bringing it up again, we didn't score any runs," Varitek said.

The numbers are grim. In Wakefield's five starts the team has scored 10 runs. In his last three starts the Sox have scored two runs (3-0 loss, 5-1 loss, 7-1 loss). He is 1-4 despite a 3.90 ERA. In those five games the Sox have batted .211. In Wakefield's last three starts the Sox are 1 for 18 (.056) with runners in scoring position, with 23 men left on base.

Funny thing is, the obvious place to look for the loss of offense when Wakefield pitches is the absence of Varitek's bat. But Bard went 1 for 3 with a walk last night and was 2 for 2 with a walk in his previous start. He's hitting .294 (5 for 17) on the season with a .400 on-base percentage.

It's not the fault of one man, this offensive slide. Rather, the Sox simply can't generate a rally with the bottom half of the order as they once could.

''We're almost playing a little bit of a National League style," manager Terry Francona noted. ''[Spots] 8 and 9, we're not getting much out of."

In an attempt to add production -- or the threat of production -- to the bottom of the lineup, Francona said he would write Wily Mo Peña's name in tonight, as the center fielder, against righthander Paul Byrd. The manager is willing to risk what could be a defensive liability for the potential of some clout out of a position that has produced just nine hits in 61 at-bats (.148) since Coco Crisp went down with a broken knuckle.

''I don't think there's any denying that," Francona said, when asked if the lack of offense out of center field influenced the decision to start Peña.

Last night, the Sox' lone run came off Peña's recently neglected bat. Peña, who hadn't started in six days, stung the first pitch Cliff Lee threw him in the fourth inning into the seats in right-center, cutting Cleveland's lead to 3-1.

The 3-0 deficit had come quick, three batters into Cleveland's first at-bat. Behind, 2 and 1, to Jhonny Peralta following a walk and a single, Wakefield attempted to sneak a fastball by Cleveland's No. 3 hitter. Peralta turned on it and cleared the Jr. Green Monster in left. ''I could have hit that ball out," Wakefield figured. ''I threw it right down the middle."

''Not a good night to get down three the way their kid's pitching," Francona said, meaning Lee, who allowed a run on four hits over six innings. ''We went pretty quietly for the most part. Sometimes a three-run deficit seems like a little bit more."

The passed balls would come in the middle innings (two in the fourth, one in the fifth, and another in the sixth). Victor Martinez walked to begin the fourth. Wakefield whiffed Eduardo Perez but, with Ronnie Belliard batting, a ball skipped off Bard's glove, advancing Martinez to second. He moved to third on Belliard's single, and with two outs and No. 9 hitter Casey Blake batting, another ball escaped Bard, allowing Martinez to scamper home for an unearned run and a 4-1 lead.

In the Cleveland fifth, Jason Michaels walked, stole second, and moved to third on a passed ball, though Wakefield pitched himself out of that jam by inducing two ground outs. However, Michaels's steal was Cleveland's third of the night in as many attempts, and the 12th successful steal in 13 attempts against Bard this season.

Martinez, after leading off the sixth with a single, moved to second on passed ball No. 4. Wakefield managed to briefly keep Martinez there, recording two outs, but Aaron Boone laced a double just between Mike Lowell and the third base bag, for a 5-1 lead. Though Boone will forever be remembered for his ALCS-winning homer off Wakefield in 2003, he's actually struggled against the knuckleballer. Boone had fanned twice last night before knocking in Martinez, a hit that improved him to just 2 for 11 off Wakefield in regular-season games.

Bard, asked if he takes solace in Wakefield's steadfast support, said, ''He's a professional guy. He believes in me. I believe in me. We'll get through this."

Cleveland, with four singles to right, tacked on two more in the eighth against Manny Delcarmen in his 2006 Sox debut.

For Bard, the four passed balls gave him 10 on the season, one more than he piled up in his previous major league experience (156 games). He's now pursuing Mike Macfarlane's club record of 26, established in 1995, the year Wakefield debuted with the Sox. Doug Mirabelli, in his four seasons here, posted these passed ball totals: 10-14-13-6.

''He's not doing a bad job," Varitek said. ''The tandem's not doing a bad job. We need to score a few runs and help them settle into their season instead of everyone being in panic mode of, 'Who's catching Wake?' "

But, that will remain the question for some time. And for now, at least, the answer is Bard.

''We believe that this is going to work," Francona said. ''It's not always easy. I don't know that we ever thought it was going to be. When it seems like it's hardest to show faith in somebody, I think that's when you do."

Is Varitek an option? ''That hasn't even been brought up," Varitek said.

Added Francona, ''I don't see how it would help, to run from him."

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