BALTIMORE -- No one will ever really know, of course, whether the stress fracture in Tim Wakefield's rib cage was the fault line on which the Red Sox' season began to crack.
Suffice to say, things looked considerably better for the Sox the last time Wakefield pitched, back on July 17, when the team was still in first place in the American League East by a half-game, and 19 games over .500.
By the time Wakefield returned, last night in Camden Yards, the 40-year-old knuckleballer was pitching not to salvage this season -- too late for that after the Sox went 22-31 in his absence and the Yankees' magic number was in single digits -- but to give him a head start on next season.
Wakefield satisfied manager Terry Francona's primary goal for the evening -- he did not come off the mound clutching his side. But neither was Wakefield inclined to crack a smile, not after a 4-0 loss to a team, the Baltimore Orioles, that had lost 17 of its previous 18 meetings with the Sox dating to last season.
``At this point, it's pretty much over with," Wakefield said. ``We're not mathematically eliminated yet, but our chances of getting into the postseason are paper thin.
``From my standpoint, I've played this game almost 15 years and I've never been injured. I'm trying to get back, I'm seeing what's going on, but my body just wouldn't let me do it. It was very frustrating for me to not be able to contribute somehow to try to stop the bleeding.
``I got hurt, 'Tek [Jason Varitek] got hurt, Trot [Nixon] got hurt, Manny [Ramírez] is hurt. It's unbelievable. I've never been a part of a team going through this many injuries. Mike Lowell's playing; I'm sure his body is killing him. It's part of it. You've got to accept it for what it is, you have to move on. We have 17 games left, we have to continue to play. We can't give up right now."
Wakefield went five innings last night, and only the first went smoothly, when he retired Brian Roberts and Melvin Mora on fly balls and struck out rookie Nick Markakis.
The next inning, the Orioles scored twice, on the strength of three singles, and two throwing errors by the majors' best fielding team, one by shortstop Alex Gonzalez as he attempted to complete a double play, the other by catcher Doug Mirabelli, who thought he could catch Kevin Millar straying off third base.
The Orioles had three hits in the third and two hits and a walk in the fourth but did not score. But in the fifth, Millar, who morphs into Jimmie Foxx when he faces Wakefield, hit a two-run home run off his former teammate, giving the Orioles a 4-0 lead.
``I tried to throw a hard one [knuckleball] down and left it up," Wakefield said of the 0-and-2 pitch he made to Millar. ``He's a good hitter, too, you can't take any credit away from him. I just don't like giving up 0-2 home runs."
Millar, who also hit a two-run home run off Wakefield here May 17 (the same day he was erased attempting to steal by Mirabelli), is now 7 for 15 (.467) with five RBIs against Wakefield, though Wakefield did manage to induce him to pop out with two on and two out in the third. In all, Wakefield gave up 10 hits, all singles except for Millar's home run, walking two and striking out two while throwing 78 pitches, 52 for strikes .
``They didn't hit the ball hard, but I made some mistakes, my feel wasn't really there, and I'm battling mechanical issues -- OK, let's try this -- it's tough when you haven't been out there for two months," Wakefield said.
The Sox, meanwhile, posed no threat to Orioles lefthander Erik Bedard, who allowed just second-inning singles to Wily Mo Peña and Gabe Kapler in seven innings. He pitched out of that threat by striking out Mirabelli and surviving a liner by Dustin Pedroia, the rookie hitting the ball directly at shortstop Miguel Tejada.
Losing to a lefty is nothing new to the Sox, who are 21-28 overall to lefthanded starters, 8-17 on the road. Since Aug. 21, when Ramírez pulled himself out of the last game of the Yankees' five-game sweep with a tender hamstring, the Sox have batted just .211 (139 for 659), scoring three runs or fewer for the 15th time in 21 games over that span.
David Ortiz, who arrived here needing two home runs to tie Foxx's club record for a season (50), had as miserable a night as anyone in a Sox uniform, going hitless in four at-bats, the last against closer Chris Ray, who coaxed a pop out from Big Papi. Ortiz knocked off Bedard's glove with a comebacker on his first at-bat, but Bedard recovered to throw him out. He rolled out to second to lead off the fourth, and had a hit taken away from him by left fielder Jeff Fiorentino's sliding catch to end the sixth.
The Yankees' magic number for clinching the AL East is seven. Any combination of Yankee wins and Red Sox losses matching that number will clinch the Yankees' ninth straight division title, something they could do entertaining the Sox this weekend.