PHOENIX -- It remains to be seen what effect Mike Timlin's five-week absence from the Red Sox will have on his pitching. But it took just one batter in yesterday afternoon's 5-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks to see that his fielding could use a little work.
Timlin's throwing error on a sacrifice bunt led to three unearned Arizona runs in the eighth inning and blew up what had been a tense pitching duel between Randy Johnson and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
"Bad toss, bad error," Timlin said.
The Sox returned home with three wins in seven games on this trip, and with their lead over the Yankees under double digits for the first time since May 24. Five games have been sliced off the lead in 12 days. The Sox led the Yankees by 14 1/2 games May 29; since then, the Bombers have gone 9-2, the Sox 4-7, and the lead is 9 1/2.
The start of a trend? The last time the Yankees drew this close, they lost five in a row while the Sox ran off five straight wins. The Sox return home to play six games against the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants, who occupy the bottom two rungs in the National League West; the Yankees will be hosting the Diamondbacks before the Mets come to Yankee Stadium for the resumption of the Subway Series.
Matsuzaka didn't sign on for this when he came to the American League: having to bat against the 6-foot-10-inch Johnson, who at 43 was as menacing as ever, striking out nine while allowing a run on four hits in six innings.
"When I stood in the box and saw his slider, for those of us who don't hit, I thought, 'This is an impossible pitch,' " said Matsuzaka, who matched the Big Unit whiff for whiff but trailed, 2-1, when he was pulled after six, having allowed two runs on four hits and four walks.
"I wanted very much to hang on," said Matsuzaka, who lingered in the visitors' clubhouse for nearly 40 minutes before appearing in the interview room.
The Sox, who had a chance to come home with a winning trip despite losing the first three in Oakland, didn't lose their grip until the eighth, which began with Conor Jackson's base hit off reliever Brendan Donnelly. Javier Lopez walked Stephen Drew after he was unable to put down a bunt, and manager Terry Francona summoned Timlin, making his first appearance for the big club since May 2, the day before he was placed on the disabled list with what the team is calling tendinitis in his shoulder.
On Saturday, when Timlin was activated and the Sox cut ties with J.C. Romero, Francona said he wanted to ease Timlin into action. "But a ground-ball guy, I wanted to see him in that situation," Francona said. "It was the right time. I thought it was a good situation for him. One thing happened that Mike usually handles."
Timlin had made just one error in the last three seasons combined. Yesterday, Carlos Quentin bunted the ball right back to him, the ball not veering from the strip of dirt that leads from the plate to the mound. Timlin picked the ball up with his bare hand, then threw it over the head of Dustin Pedroia.
Timlin said it was not a matter of picking up the ball with an odd grip. "I just threw it away," he said. "Really no excuse."
Both runners scored on the overthrow, and Quentin, who was credited with a sacrifice, wound up on third. Timlin walked the next batter, Chris Snyder, then got the next two hitters on popups before Chris Young lined a single to left, scoring Quentin to make it 5-1.
The Sox, whose lineup did not include either J.D. Drew (1 for 8 against Johnson) or David Ortiz (4 for 25), took a 1-0 lead against Johnson in the fourth, when Manny Ramírez -- who had missed Saturday's game after being hit on the left hand by a pitch Friday -- walked and scored on a double by Mike Lowell, who is playing with his left thumb heavily wrapped (sprained ligament).
But the Diamondbacks answered with single runs in both the fourth and sixth against Matsuzaka, who has lost his last three. Both innings started with Matsuzaka walking the leadoff man: Orlando Hudson walked and stole second, and after a walk to Jackson, Hudson scored on a single by Stephen Drew. In the sixth, Jackson walked and scored on Quentin's double into the gap.
The Sox had a chance to push across the tying run after Johnson departed in the seventh, when Pedroia opened with a single off reliever Jailen Peguero and was bunted to second by pinch hitter Alex Cora, who hit for Matsuzaka. But Julio Lugo, who homered in his first at-bat in Arizona, then failed to get the ball out of the infield the rest of the weekend, rolled to third, and Coco Crisp, who had just three singles in 25 at-bats on the trip, saw Young run down his gapper to left-center.
Crisp also hit the ball well with two on and two out in the ninth, but this time it was right at Young, who caught the ball.
The Sox got terrific starting pitching on this trip; Curt Schilling threw a complete-game one-hitter and no Sox starter allowed more than three earned runs, with only Julian Tavarez, in the first game in Oakland, failing to last six innings. The staff ERA on the trip was 2.30; opponents hit just .201.
But the Sox offense was held to two runs or fewer four times. They batted just .222, with seven home runs, and had almost twice as many whiffs as walks.
"We finished on a positive note and we won the series," said Kevin Youkilis, who had one hit in four trips while hitting in Ortiz's No. 3 hole, "but I'm still unhappy about the schedule, having to take a road trip on the West Coast after a night game at home [June 3 vs. the Yankees].
"I still think it's not right. The Yankees had to do it one time, too, and I think it's a disadvantage. You can't blame [the record on the trip] on that, but I can speak for myself and tell you I'm exhausted after this road trip. It's had an effect.
"Luckily we get to go home and get back to our own houses and play at home."