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Disappearing act by Red Sox

They're swept by Tigers entering the break

DETROIT -- Curt Schilling intercepted Daisuke Matsuzaka in the middle of the visitors' clubhouse yesterday -- no translator required -- whispered a few words of encouragement, and told him to enjoy his time off, the first three-day respite since the start of spring training in which Matsuzaka's every step will not be captured by a photographer's lens.

Schilling needn't have bothered to tell Matsuzaka to forget about the Detroit Tigers for a while. That was an unspoken understanding for everyone in a Red Sox uniform, after the defending American League champions hit three home runs in the first three innings off Matsuzaka, the most he's allowed in a game all season, and held on for a 6-5 win and a three-game sweep of the Sox.

The Sox nonetheless went into the All-Star break in first place in the American League East, the third straight season they've reached this mid summer junction ahead of the pack. The difference this time is that their lead is 10 games over the Yankees and Blue Jays, the largest of any division leader.

"You'd rather not go into the break being swept," said Schilling, who plans to be at Fenway Park Wednesday to throw. "But this is a good team, and everyone in here understands that."

The Sox have one starting pitcher, Josh Beckett, who is a finalist to start the All-Star Game tomorrow night in San Francisco. They have another, Matsuzaka, who is a 10-game winner, the most wins ever by a Sox rookie at the break. But you don't have to look far to find people who contend that Schilling, who has been on the disabled list retroactive to June 19 and may not be back until the first of August, will play a significant role in how the Sox will play in the second half, or whether they will make a move for another starting pitcher.

"I feel that way, too," Schilling said. "It depends on what's out there. If they think there's someone out there who will make us better for October, they'll do it. But I'm coming along. Regaining strength is just part of it. I have to do things to take care of my arm that I've never had to do before, and we're addressing that."

Mark Buehrle, one pitcher in whom the Sox had expressed considerable interest, reached agreement on an extension with the White Sox yesterday, and it's doubtful there will be another starting pitcher available at the break with as attractive a pedigree. But even if the Marlins, say, dangle Dontrelle Willis, the Sox have let it be known they will not part with their best prospects, two of whom, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and pitcher Clay Buchholz, played yesterday in the All-Star Futures Game.

With the Sox down two of their top righthanded hitters, Kevin Youkilis (strained quadriceps) and Manny Ramírez (inner ear infection), they could not overcome the impressive show of force by the Tigers, whose three big swings -- and a spectacular catch by center fielder Curtis Granderson -- proved more decisive than the five errors committed by Detroit.

Gary Sheffield (two-out homer in the first), Marcus Thames (440-foot blast over the hedges in the third), and Carlos Guillen (a two-run drive, also in the third) all went deep on Matsuzaka, who departed after just five innings, despite pitching in the kind of hot weather (87 degrees) he says he enjoys.

"He's good. He's real good," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I think what you saw today is what I talk about a lot: When you get real good pitchers, and you catch them on an off day, that's when you've really got your only chance to get them.

"I would assume -- I don't know him that well -- but I would assume, watching today, that he wasn't real happy with the way he located his fastball."

The assumption was not a misplaced one.

"First and foremost, I think the problem today was with my command," Matsuzaka said. "Of course there were a few hits that their hitters made some good contact on, but overall I felt that I left a lot of my pitches in soft locations."

Tigers first baseman Sean Casey, who hit cleanup in Magglio Ordonez's absence and singled home Sheffield in the third after the Detroit slugger doubled to left over the head of Wily Mo Peña, whose first step in gave him no chance for a play, said Matsuzaka's fastball was "a little flat."

"I personally don't think he was throwing his split the way he wanted to," Casey said. "I think we were able to pick up the spin and not swing. That was the big thing. When he has that working, and it's in the zone, it falls out and that's when you swing and miss."

The Sox, who scored twice in the third without the benefit of a hit -- three walks by Tigers starter Nate Robertson, a hit batsman, and two errors -- had a home run taken away in the fourth by Granderson, who reached over the fence to catch Peña's drive and fell back toward the plate without dropping the ball. "I thought I hit it too high," said Peña, whose miserable afternoon also included being called out on strikes three times. "Then I saw him jump."

The Sox finally left the premises in the seventh. Minor league journeyman Jeff Bailey hit one 411 feet in what was likely his last at-bat before returning to Pawtucket. "I don't know what the record is, but I was flying around the bases," he said. The Sox bullpen negotiated a trade for the ball, giving the woman who grabbed it three baseballs in exchange. "She didn't want to give it up," Bailey said, grinning at the notion that his home run ball would have value to someone not related to the Bailey family.

Julio Lugo, who had three hits, then followed with his fifth home run, and it was 6-4. Robertson was done after another Tigers error, but reliever Jose Capellan, a week-old member of the Tigers after being traded from the Brewers, retired Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek on fly balls to end the threat.

In the eighth, J.D. Drew walked and sped to third on Capellan's error on a pickoff attempt with Ramírez pinch hitting. Capellan whiffed Ramírez, but Lugo drew the Sox within a run with a double. The fourth Tigers pitcher, Zach Miner, struck out Coco Crisp to end the inning.

Dustin Pedroia singled to open the ninth against closer Todd Jones, but David Ortiz struck out on a half-swing and Lowell flied out. Varitek singled, and the Tigers' fifth bobble, by left fielder Craig Monroe, put the tying run 90 feet away. But it stayed there, when Drew fouled to third.

The Sox' offense has not operated the way it did before the team played four hours on a Sunday night against the Yankees, then flew all night to Oakland.

"We'll take our time off, our [All-Star] guys will go to San Francisco, and we'll regroup," said manager Terry Francona.

And Daisuke will disappear for a while.