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Devil Rays cash in as Red Sox relievers fade at the finish

Winning pitcher Shawn Camp (left) was part of the welcoming party for Greg Norton (14), who ended things in the 10th with a one-out homer.
Winning pitcher Shawn Camp (left) was part of the welcoming party for Greg Norton (14), who ended things in the 10th with a one-out homer. (AP Photo)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- This Torture at the Trop could not end without the home team sticking out its tongue one last time at the visiting Red Sox.

Sox reliever Julian Tavarez, still absorbing the impact of allowing Greg Norton's 10th-inning walkoff home run that made 7-6 winners of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was walking off the mound when the ear-splitting PA system, so overamped that George Mitchell should investigate, began to play ``Sweet Caroline."

But just a few bars into the song, the Rays climaxed that act of bootlegging spite by simulating the sound of a turntable needle scratching across a record. Neil Diamond was cut off, and the D-Rays slapped on their own signature tune and anthem of hope, Bruce Springsteen's ``Better Days."

The obvious message? Take that, as if the Sox needed a final slap after blowing a 6-2 lead nine outs away from victory. Whatever stings the Sox might have risked by collectively taking a dip in the new ``Touch Tank" housing 30 cownose rays beyond the right- center-field fence couldn't have been much worse than the marks left by rookie Ben Zobrist's two-run double off Manny Delcarmen in the seventh, home runs by Travis Lee (off Mike Timlin) and Dioner Navarro (off Jonathan Papelbon) that tied the score in the eighth, and Norton's winner off Tavarez, the losing pitcher in three of Boston's five extra-inning defeats this season.

``We didn't finish the game," said Sox manager Terry Francona, forced to play another game of catcher roulette in the absence of the injured Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli and getting a collective 0 for 5 from Corky Miller (``Who?" mocked a graphic on the Devil Rays' telecast) and Javy Lopez, as well as a probably inadvisable fastballs-only sequence of pitches from Papelbon, who had retired 25 of the previous 26 batters he'd faced until Navarro pulled an 0- 2 fastball over the right-field fence. ``Obviously, we had a four-run lead and felt pretty good about where we were, [but] it just didn't end the way we wanted it to."

The Sox can only hope that unlike a potentially fatal encounter with the rays of the cownose variety, the pain inflicted by their baseball namesakes is only temporary. But should the Sox fail to qualify to play in October -- they fell two games behind the Yankees in the AL East, their biggest deficit this season, while remaining a half-game behind the White Sox in the wild-card race, losing seven games in 10 meetings under this Teflon roof, two out of three this weekend, may well leave a permanent scar.

``This building hasn't been too friendly for us, for whatever reason," said second baseman Mark Loretta, who in the sixth inning scored Boston's final run in a game that should have been grist for another celebration of Big Papi -- David Ortiz became the first player in Sox history to hit 40 or more home runs in three straight seasons -- but instead became a sullen dissection of a Sox bullpen that has fallen upon some recent hard times.

``It's frustrating," said third baseman Mike Lowell, who sat out the entire weekend after fouling a ball off his left foot Thursday night against Cleveland but expects to be back in the lineup tomorrow night in Kansas City, Mo. ``We're up, 6-2, in the seventh thinking we have a great chance to win that game. But we've pulled out some games maybe we shouldn't have won, and there are going to be a couple of games during the year that are going to feel like they've been stolen."

Zobrist, whose double off Delcarmen came with two outs, has been in the big leagues only since last Tuesday. Earlier in the game, Zobrist homered off starter Jason Johnson, who pitched well enough (6 innings, 2 runs, 1 earned) to put a stop to a personal seven-game losing streak that extends back to May 28 but instead came away with a no-decision in his fourth start for the Sox.

``That shortstop getting a hit was big," Loretta said of Zobrist, who drew the D-Rays to 6-4 right after Delcarmen, who was touched for singles by Norton and B.J. Upton, had just struck out Russell Branyan on a wicked curveball. ``That was a nice at-bat. You don't expect that."

Timlin was taken out of the house by Travis Lee, a .207-hitting cleanup man who nonetheless became the fourth batter to hit a home run off Timlin in his last 5 2/3 innings, dating to July 23 in Seattle, when Adrian Beltre (eighth inning) and Richie Sexson (walkoff) took him deep. Last season, in a league-leading 81 appearances spanning 80 1/3 innings, Timlin gave up just two home runs, and he'd allowed just one in his first 35 1/3 innings this season.

``Every year he's gone through a bad week or two," Francona said. ``He'll figure out a way to bounce back. He always does.

``I've seen him go through periods. His words -- `I stink right now' -- [but] he won't [stink], though. That's the way it goes."

Timlin, who has never been on this side of 40 before, insists there is nothing wrong physically.

``Well, I probably said that out of frustration," he said about the ``I stink" remark. ``When I'm missing, I'm getting hit."

Very few people this season have hit Papelbon, who was throwing to Lopez for the second time when he whiffed Norton on three pitches, all fastballs, then threw two more fastballs to Navarro. The D-Rays catcher fouled both of this pitches back, suggesting he was just missing the fastball. He didn't miss when Papelbon, eschewing his split-fingered fastball, tried to blow another one by him.

``I wanted to go in on him, and it was more the middle of the plate," said Papelbon, who had allowed just one other run on the road in 30 2/3 innings previously this season, that coming on Jermaine Dye's home run in the bottom of the ninth July 9 in Chicago, a game the Sox lost in 19 innings. ``I'd gotten him out [Friday night] on an elevated fastball. He probably did his homework and went back there and found out how I got him.

``It's all hindsight now. I probably should have mixed it up better. You live and learn. That's part of being in the big leagues."

Tavarez has already done plenty of living, and has come away with few lessons worth keeping in a season that has been a disappointment for both him and the club. After Manny Ramírez, whose 22-game hitting streak was kept alive in the eighth when outfielders Branyan and Damon Hollins crossed signals and let Ramírez's fly ball drop for a single, flied out to Branyan to end the 10th with two runners on, Tavarez's latest exercise in frustration lasted just two batters.

``Frustrating," Tavarez said. ``We had a chance to score and didn't do it. They did it on one swing."

Better days? The Sox can only hope.

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