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INDIANS 6, RED SOX 3

Sox can't catch a break

They lose to Indians -- and also will lose Varitek, who needs knee surgery

There's a vacancy sign on the captain's chair in the Red Sox clubhouse. That doesn't bode well for them on a night when they lost, 6-3, to the Cleveland Indians and fell into a virtual tie with the Yankees for first place in the American League East after holding sole possession of the top spot for the last 44 days.

Jason Varitek has not relinquished the red ``C" on his chest, but the catcher will need arthroscopic surgery to repair partially torn meniscus cartilage in his left knee, an injury that will require Varitek to join right fielder Trot Nixon on the disabled list, along with starting pitchers Tim Wakefield and Matt Clement. Varitek's surgery is scheduled for tomorrow morning, Terry Francona said, and although the manager would not speculate on how long he'll be out, it is expected to be at least a month, according to club sources.

Losing a starting position player a day is not a prescription for success -- the Sox have lost 4 of 6 and are .002 points behind the Yankees -- especially on a night when the starting pitcher, Jason Johnson, is called up from Pawtucket because the man scheduled to pitch, Kyle Snyder, had been pressed into service as a reliever for 4 1/3 scoreless innings a night earlier.

The night would not have been complete without one more casualty, and Mike Lowell obliged by fouling a pitch off his right foot while whiffing for the third time. Alex Cora replaced Lowell at third base in the ninth, but X-rays were negative, and the injury was described as a bruise.

``Those are things that are out of your control, and so you can't really do too much about them," second baseman Mark Loretta said of the back-to-back disablements. ``We just have to find a way to dig deep and the guys who get an opportunity have to step up.

``Hopefully we get [Varitek] back sometime in early September for the final push. But an injury like that, for a catcher, is tougher than it would be for an outfielder."

The Sox looked as wounded as the black bird that briefly took a perch on second base in the eighth inning before hopping its way around the premises. Evidently, the bird could not fly, and neither could the Sox, who managed just one run -- Loretta's first homer in 110 at-bats -- in eight innings against Indians lefthander C.C. Sabathia, the two-time All-Star who had lost his previous three starts but tamed the Sox, who were 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position.

Instead of roaring for another walkoff home run by David Ortiz (bloop double and squibber single), the sellout crowd of 36,328 was reduced to directing its ninth-inning encouragement at the bird, which made it back to second and hopped toward third. In the middle of the ninth, the bird occupied center stage, appearing on the video scoreboard, while the PA system played the Beatles' ``Blackbird," at the behest of Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Sox executive vice president of public affairs.

``On a night like this," Steinberg said, ``this is what people go home and talk about. `Hey, were you at the game with the blackbird?' "

The Sox finally gave the bird some competition in their final at-bat, when pinch hitter Gabe Kapler walked and Alex Gonzalez hit his ninth home run of the season, off reliever Fernando Cabrera, but Cabrera retired Kevin Youkilis on a broken-bat fly ball and Loretta on a tapper to the mound, leaving Ortiz on the on-deck circle when the game ended.

``He threw the ball as well as we've seen him throw," Indians manager Eric Wedge said of Sabathia, who is a modest 8-7 despite an ERA of 3.64. ``He had a good fastball from the first inning on, and he had it all the way to the eighth."

The Indians appeared to enjoy a certain comfort level against Johnson, and why not? Johnson, who had signed with the Indians as a free agent last winter and was supposed to compensate in part for the loss of free agent Kevin Millwood, was 1-8 with a 7.38 ERA in his last 11 starts with the Tribe before the Sox, desperate for pitching help, acquired him last month for cash and a player to be named.

Even when Johnson pitched against the Tribe, he was a soft touch, going 0-4 with a 5.97 ERA in 12 career appearances, and he'd obviously given no evidence that he'd turned things around for the Sox, going 0-2 with a 10.13 ERA in two starts for Boston before being shipped out.

It was 89 degrees at gametime, and the Indians jumped on Johnson early, scoring two runs on four hits and leaving the bases loaded in the first inning, when Johnson laboriously threw 36 pitches, and added a third run when Casey Blake led off the third with his 15th home run and third in two nights against the Sox.

Johnson actually made a fair accounting of himself thereafter, setting down eight in a row before issuing a two-out walk to Blake and allowing a single to rookie Shin-Soo Choo before Jhonny Peralta hit into a force play. He left after giving up a two-out single in the sixth to Grady Sizemore, who had three of Cleveland's 13 hits.

``The confidence is definitely back," Johnson said. ``I think going down to Triple A and making a few starts and getting my confidence back has helped me a lot, too. After that first inning, three weeks ago I might have buckled."

The Tribe expanded its lead to 5-1 with two runs in the seventh off Craig Hansen, who was touched for a double by Travis Hafner and RBI single by Victor Martinez. The Indians catcher advanced to second on a passed ball charged to Mirabelli and scored on a single by Blake. That run was unearned.

Bryan Corey, just picked up from the Texas Rangers in a trade for minor leaguer Luis Mendoza, then made his Sox debut, and on his second pitch gave up a home run to Joe Inglett, the Indians' 27-year-old rookie second baseman who deposited a Pesky Pole special into the right-field seats.

``First one of the year," said the well-traveled Corey of the home run. ``But it just felt good getting out there."

Corey at least went home in one piece, which these days is a W if you play for the Sox.

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