KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Remember when Red Sox Nation was ready to panic in the streets? It was premature. But maybe now . . .
When you can no longer rely on Jonathan Papelbon to close out a one-run game; when you can no longer depend on Manny Ramírez to get the ball out of his glove to make an attempt at gunning down the winning run; and when you've lost for a second straight time to the lowly Royals, then if not panic, there has to be major concern as to where the 2006 Red Sox are heading.
Where they are now after their fourth straight loss last night: three games behind the Yankees in the American League East (four in the loss column), and 1 1/2 games behind Minnesota and a half-game behind the White Sox in the wild-card race.
``They're all hard when it happens late," said Sox manager Terry Francona. ``When you get to Pap, you're feeling good about it. It's just one of those things that happens."
Mike Sweeney's single knocked in Mike Grudzielanek with the winning run in a stunning 5-4 loss. But that was after Papelbon surrendered a leadoff triple to pinch hitter Esteban German in the ninth with a 4-3 lead. After striking out Joey Gathright, David DeJesus hit a sacrifice fly to left, beating Ramírez's throw to the plate. But Grudzielanek doubled to left and Sweeney stroked his single to left. Ramírez charged the ball, but couldn't get it out of his glove.
``It was a do-or-die kind of play," said Francona. ``He knew that when he was coming in. You either make it or you don't."
``In my opinion, [Grudzielanek] would have been out," said catcher Javy Lopez, asked what would have happened if Ramírez had been able to make the throw.
Opined Mike Lowell, ``It would have taken a great throw to throw him out. That's just the way I saw it.
``This was a very tough loss to swallow. We had a chance to break it open with one big hit and I couldn't get it done. But you come into the ninth with Pap, you're feeling pretty good about it."
Papelbon, who blew his second straight save and fifth this season, said, ``I just wasn't throwing through Javy's mitt. A lot of times I was just getting ahead of myself. I have to learn to trust my stuff."
Sweeney said the Royals have had good scouting reports on Papelbon, and know his tendencies a little bit better.
``Those guys are going to make adjustments and I need to make some on them," Papelbon said.
On a 102-degree night, Josh Beckett managed to stay cool even with the uneasiness of Lopez's adventurous catching looming over his six-inning outing and an offense that stopped producing after the fourth inning.
Manny Delcarmen and Mike Timlin kept a one-run lead intact through eight innings and it appeared Beckett was heading toward his 14th win.
Lopez, acquired by the Sox in waiver deal with the Orioles Aug. 4, had a horrible time catching Beckett, who was charged with three wild pitches, and Lopez committed one passed ball. Lopez seemed to have problems following the movement of Beckett's offspeed pitches; he needed to block several pitches in the dirt.
``He's doing the best he can on the fly," said Francona. ``He's trying to learn these guys. He's trying his best."
Beckett left with a 4-3 lead after six innings, allowing six hits and no walks, lifted by two big hits early in the game -- Ramírez's first-inning homer and Lopez's two-run double in the fourth. The Sox squandered chances to add breathing room as Lowell and Wily Mo Peña grounded into inning-ending double plays with the bases loaded in the fifth and seventh innings, respectively.
``They turned out to be big double plays," Francona said. ``I guess we needed those runs."
No question there's a tremendous reliance on David Ortiz and Ramírez to provide the bulk of the production, especially when things aren't going so well -- the starting rotation is 1-7 in its last 13 starts.
So the Red Sox needed a big night from Beckett, who entered the game with a 5.00 ERA. He was shelled by the Indians in his last start, Aug. 3, allowing 11 hits and seven runs in six innings and was 3-2 with a 5.06 ERA in six starts in July.
Staked to a 4-0 lead in the fourth, the 26-year-old righthander protected it -- briefly.
Ramírez blasted his 32d homer off lefthander Mark Redman, who held the Sox to seven hits and one run over eight innings in a 1-0 loss July 19. This time, he didn't make it through the fifth, throwing 106 pitches before departing with one out and the bases loaded. Reliever Todd Wellemeyer came on to induce a double-play grounder by Lowell, ending a chance for the Sox to expand their 4-3 lead.
Ramírez was hitting just .284 against lefthanders when he croaked an 84-mile-per-hour changeup into center field with Kevin Youkilis (leadoff walk) aboard. The numbers keep mounting for Ramírez, who hit his 35th career homer against the Royals, his eighth against a lefty this season, and extended his hitting streak to 24 games.
In the fourth, the Sox didn't need Ortiz or Ramírez to spark a rally.
After a one-out walk to Lowell, spark plug Gabe Kapler hit a double to left-center. With runners at second and third, Lopez, who went 2 for 4 Tuesday, doubled to the left-field corner, making it 4-0. Lopez hit into a double play in the second inning after Lowell had drawn a walk and Kapler reached on an error by third baseman Mark Teahen.
But the catcher, who said he's growing more comfortable in his new surroundings, made up for it in the fourth.
Lopez's defense was a different story. It was evident he wasn't comfortable catching Beckett as he learns a new staff.
In the third inning, Beckett struck out Angel Berroa, but the ball got past Lopez for a wild pitch. Berroa could have ended up at first, but the Royals shortstop didn't run the ball out.
In the fourth, when the Royals scored three runs, right fielder Shane Costa reached on a wild pitch on strike three. That was after three consecutive hits by the middle of the order, the big blow a two-run double by Teahen.
Then with Ryan Shealy up, Lopez committed a passed ball.
He was crossed up on a ball that broke inside. Lopez didn't follow the break on the pitch and it bounced off the end of his mitt, scoring Teahen. The inning was reflective of the inexperience Lopez has with the staff.