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Lugo can't get it started

Leadoff man continues his struggles in defeat

MINNEAPOLIS -- The hue and cry for Alex Cora to play more may soon be renewed, but this time it will have nothing to do with the rookie at second base, Dustin Pedroia.

Instead, the clamor for Cora may center on the slow start by the veteran shortstop, Julio Lugo, whose struggles at the plate have escaped relatively undetected because the Red Sox have been winning and Pedroia's bat has been glacial.

But the last two nights here have underscored how Lugo has generated little heat at the top of the lineup, and none here under the dome, where the Sox last night fell, 2-1, to the Minnesota Twins, only their third loss in the last 10 games. The Sox began the day with a 6 1/2-game lead in the American League East, the biggest of any division in the majors.

Six times in the last two games, Lugo has made the last out of an inning, stranding nine base runners. In another at-bat, he was unable to get Doug Mirabelli home from third base with less than two outs, Mirabelli cut down at the plate Friday night in a game that was scoreless at the time. In his final at-bat last night, ending an 0-for-5 day that dropped his average to .221, Lugo popped to second to open the ninth. In 23 at-bats in May, he has two hits, none in 10 chances in Minnesota.

Cora had a chance to offer deliverance again last night, when he was sent to the plate to pinch hit for Pedroia with two on and two outs in the eighth. But Twins manager Ron Gardenhire countered with closer Joe Nathan, and after pulling a long foul off the upper-deck facade, Cora hit a slicing liner to left to end the inning. Nathan had the tying run on base in the ninth, when Kevin Youkilis reached on a ball that was implausibly scored an error on third baseman Nick Punto, but he retired David Ortiz on a wicked liner to center and struck out Manny Ramírez to end it.

Lugo's long night continued a slump in which he is batting .177 (14 for 79) with just four extra-base hits in his last 20 games. Lugo emerged from the shower last night long after many of his teammates had left, and politely begged off from answering questions, saying he did not want to say anything he might regret later. Manager Terry Francona had said before the game that Lugo might get this afternoon's game off, depending on Coco Crisp's availability to bat leadoff. Crisp could have played last night, but Francona said his neck had stiffened the night before and kept him out of the starting lineup, inserting him into the game as a pinch runner in the eighth.

Francona, of course, isn't close to declaring Lugo's slow start a crisis, although it's not far-fetched to imagine some lineup tinkering -- some combination of Crisp and Youkilis at the top of the order -- if Lugo's struggles continue. "Am I worried about him as a player? No," Francona said last night.

The Sox, who scored just two runs to win the series opener Friday, wasted superb six innings last night in which Julian Tavarez went head to head with Twins ace Johan Santana, the two-time Cy Young Award winner, and didn't blink.

Tavarez, who has drawn only aces -- Kevin Millwood, Roy Halladay (twice), Chien-Ming Wang, and Santana -- despite his status as Boston's No. 5 starter, allowed just four hits, striking out a season-high seven. If someone had told him before the game that Santana would be gone (five innings, 98 pitches) before he was, would he have expected a win?

"Probably," Tavarez said. "But the bullpen for the Twins shut us down. I think the bullpen [four relievers] won the game for them, not Santana. Four innings, that's unbelievable."

The only inning in which Tavarez encountered trouble was the second, which began with a one-out bloop single to center by Justin Morneau, who advanced to second when the ball took a high carom off the turf and clanked off Wily Mo Peña's glove for an error. Tavarez proceeded to walk Jason Kubel and, after a 10-pitch duel, issued another walk to Jeff Cirillo, loading the bases. Jason Tyner bounced to second, a run scoring as the ball was not hit hard enough for the Sox to turn two.

Jason Bartlett, the Twins' No. 9 batter, then hit a smash that third baseman Mike Lowell was able to knock down but could not retrieve in time to make a play, Kubel scoring on the infield hit to make it 2-0.

The Sox failed to capitalize on some early chances against Santana, who lacked his customary sharpness. A single by Youkilis and two walks loaded the bases in the first, but Punto threw out Lowell from his knees to end the inning.

Jason Varitek's infield single and a bloop hit one out later by Pedroia put Sox on first and second with one out in the second. But Lugo lined out to first baseman Morneau, who easily doubled up Pedroia.

The Sox finally broke through with two outs and nobody on in the fourth. Peña lined a single to center and wound up on third when Santana threw two wild pitches with Pedroia at the plate. The rookie then lined a ball that made the left-field seats on one bounce for a ground-rule double, Peña trotting home.

Ramírez doubled with two outs in the fifth, but J.D. Drew, Santana's last batter of the night, took a called third strike. Santana's successor, Matt Guerrier, walked two in the sixth, but Lugo went around on a two-strike pitch in the dirt, flinging his bat and helmet in disgust.