MINNEAPOLIS -- The Red Sox are only a game out of first place. They return home for a big, fat nine-game homestand beginning Monday. They are ahead of last year's pace, when they landed a postseason berth for a franchise-record third consecutive season.
So how come it feels like the SS Francona is taking on water and there aren't enough lifeboats?
Maybe it's because the Sox have stopped hitting (six runs in 30 innings in the Metrodome), their pitching is shredding, and they've lost four straight games for the first time since May 2005.
The Twins beat the Sox again last night, 5-3, completing a three-game sweep of the Henrymen. Gigantic Venezuelan righthander Carlos Silva hog-tied Papa Jack's hitters for six innings and the Twins bullpen escaped some jams down the stretch. The frustrated Sox left 10 runners on base, six in the last three innings. Manny (0 for Minnesota) Ramírez fanned with the bases loaded in the eighth, and again with one aboard in the ninth for the final out.
There seemed to be no limit to the Sox' frustration. Twins fielders made great plays on hard-hit balls, and a certain David Ortiz home run was blocked -- Bill Russell-like -- by a loudspeaker in the sixth inning ( talk about your Sports Illustrated cover jinx!). Ortiz was held to a single, yet another man-made moment for baseball's pinball arcade. Naturally, Manny followed with a hard-hit, double-play grounder. The Sox scored a total of two runs off Twins starters in three games. Ortiz and Ramírez went 3 for 24 in Minnesota.
``Bad karma here," said Kevin Youkilis, who went 2 for 5 for his 23d multihit game of the year. ``This was just one of those series where luck was not on our side."
Sox manager Terry Francona had some choice words for the Metrodome.
``I hope for their sake they get a new ballpark," said Francona. ``This is major league baseball. The outcome of a game should never hinge on a speaker. That's stupid."
This series may have jump-started the heretofore moribund Twins. Minnesota took the opener when Jason Kubel ended a boffo pitching duel with a walkoff grand slam in the 12th. Sox righthander Matt Clement struggled mightily Wednesday and the Boston bullpen was routed in an 8-1 loss. Last night, the Twins completed the sweep, sending the free-falling Sox to Atlanta with their longest losing streak in almost 13 months. The Sox had not been swept by Minnesota since August 1994.
Tim Wakefield (4-8) figured to be the slump stopper in the finale. Boston's veteran knuckleballer loves the Medrodome. He was unbeaten in the kooky building since April 1999. Overall, he was 6-2 in nine starts under the Teflon roof.
But he was not at the top of his game. In six innings, Wakefield allowed eight hits and four runs (three earned). In Wakefield's eight losses, the Sox have scored six runs while he was still in the game.
``I try not to think about that and I wasn't thinking about that tonight," said Wakefield. ``They scrapped together enough hits to score four runs. The home run [Kubel's third in three nights] was a bad pitch, but other than that they were able to hit balls in holes and score the runs they scored. It was just one of those nights that things didn't go our way."
Wakefield had control problems in the first inning. Luis Castillo led off with a walk, took second on a passed ball, moved to third on a wild pitch, then scored on a ground out by Joe Mauer. The Twins made it 2-0 on Kubel's homer in the second, then stretched it to 3-0 in the third. Wakefield kept the Twins off the scoreboard in the fourth, but Minnesota bled him for another solo run in the fifth inning. Jason Bartlett drew a one-out walk, took third on a single to left by Castillo, and scored on a sacrifice fly to center by Nick Punto.
The Twins had a gloved hand in stopping Boston's vaunted offense. Shortstop Bartlett made a spectacular play (diving to his left, backhanding a one-hopper, getting to his feet, and firing across the diamond) on Ramírez to start the fourth and Torii Hunter ran down a 400-foot drive by Doug Mirabelli at the beginning of the fifth. In the sixth, it was third baseman Punto making the dazzling backhand stop of a scalding one-hopper hit by Alex Cora.
``They played inspiring defense," said Francona.
The Sox finally broke through with two runs in the eighth. Youkilis doubled to start things. When Cora was hit by a pitch, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire summoned southpaw Denny Reyes to pitch to Ortiz. Papi hit a hard hopper that first baseman Justin Morneau mishandled for an error, loading the bases. Time for Twins closer Joe Nathan.
Batting with the bases loaded and no outs, with a chance to tie the score with one swing, Ramírez fanned on a 2-and-2 pitch, making him 0 for 10 in Minnesota. Trot Nixon broke the logjam with a sacrifice fly to center, then Mike Lowell singled to left, scoring Cora. Coco Crisp singled to right to reload the bases, but the frustration continued when Jason Varitek batted for Mirabelli and popped up the first pitch for the third out. It was the third time in two nights that Varitek left the bases loaded to end an inning. Boston trailed, 4-2.
The Twins got one back immediately. Michael Cuddyer led off the bottom of the eighth with a single, which prompted Francona to call for lefthander Javier Lopez, who had been acquired earlier in the day from the White Sox for David Riske. Lopez walked the first batter he faced on four pitches, then surrendered an RBI single to right by Hunter, but escaped further trouble.
Nathan got two quick outs in the ninth, but the Sox didn't die easily. Cora singled, took second base while Ortiz was batting, then scored on a single by Big Papi. That brought back Manny -- representing the tying run. Ramírez fanned on 3 and 2, a 94-mile-per-hour fastball. It was time to fly to Atlanta, time to put the hideous Metrodome in the rearview mirror for another season.