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Winged by Birds

Sox lose 3 of 4, but they're still in first

BALTIMORE -- Even as the Sox stumbled into the All-Star break by losing for the third time in four games here yesterday against the Baltimore Orioles, 4-1, you still could take the long view. Like the one Terry Francona offered when someone asked him what he would have done had someone told him back in March that Curt Schilling would have just one win at the season's traditional midpoint.

''I wouldn't have sold my house in Philadelphia," Francona responded.

With Schilling spending the weekend in minor league Syracuse, where he was in dress rehearsals for his return to the Sox as a reliever, and closer Keith Foulke just beginning what is expected to be at least six weeks of rehabilitation on his surgically repaired left knee, there is reason to be impressed that the Sox enter the break atop the American League East.

''The only positive that we take out of the whole series is that we're going into the break in first place for the first time since 1995," said Johnny Damon, who with a ninth-inning bunt single extended his hitting streak to 25 games, longest in the majors this season, but could not jump-start an offense held to a single run in all three losses here.

''We've got New York when we get back, and we definitely need to be ready to play back at Fenway."

The short view, as the Sox send five players and manager Francona to the All-Star Game, is that by succumbing to perennial nemesis Rodrigo Lopez, who held them to three hits, including Trot Nixon's ninth home run, in eight innings, they allowed the Orioles to right themselves just when they appeared to be in free fall.

The Orioles, who had not won any of their previous five series and started last week with back-to-back defeats to the Yankees in which the Bombers scored 13 and 12 runs, pulled within two games of the Sox. The Yankees, winners of seven of their last eight after taking three of four from the Indians, are 2 1/2 back, and as erratic as they've been, no one expected they'd be midterm dropouts.

But now the Orioles have made clear their intentions of sticking around, pecking away with enough persistence against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to score single runs from the fourth through seventh innings, plenty for Lopez, who racked up his 10th career win against the Sox.

''I think they knew that already," said Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who homered in each of the last three games here, drawing to within two hits of the 3,000-plateau, and also knocked in the Orioles' first run with a sacrifice fly. ''I think the message has been sent to the whole league that we're here to stay. Everybody goes through a little bad streak. It's going to happen, but I think we're good enough to be around all the way through."

Nixon, whose home run just over the right-field scoreboard gave the Sox a 1-0 lead in the second, endorsed Palmeiro's declaration of the Orioles' capacity to contend deep into summer.

''They're not going to go anywhere," said Nixon, ''just like I don't think we're going to go anywhere, the Yankees aren't going to go anywhere, Toronto. It's going to be a fight all the way, and the most important months of any season are August and September."

But Nixon also asserted the Sox, whose 49-38 record at the break is the third-best in the league, trailing only the White Sox (57-29) and Angels (52-36), had the right to take some pride in what's been accomplished to date.

''You bet," he said. ''A lot of people felt we weren't going to get here, the way we started the season. A lot of people would have liked to have seen us eight games out or whatever. We're very happy to be where we are now."

Wakefield, who hadn't lost since June 6, did not allow a walk in seven innings, the sixth straight time he has gone at least that deep into the game, a career best streak that helped ease the burden on Boston's overtaxed bullpen. He would have been considerably happier yesterday if he had kept Jay Gibbons and Palmeiro in the ballpark, allowing bases-empty home runs in the fifth and sixth, respectively.

The Orioles had tied the score in the fourth when Melvin Mora bounced a single up the middle and Miguel Tejada lined a ball to left-center that Damon attempted to collar with a dive, only to have the ball bounce out of his glove for a double.

Mora, who had stopped at third, scored on Palmeiro's sacrifice fly, and Damon prevented further damage by running down B.J. Surhoff's gapper to right-center.

The Orioles strung together three singles by the bottom third of the lineup -- Luis Matos, Gibbons, and Sal Fasano -- to score their final run in the seventh.

''What are you going to do?" Wakefield said of pitching in Camden Yards, whose inviting dimensions benefitted not only Nixon but Palmeiro, both of their home runs landing in the first row over the scoreboard. Nixon's was estimated to have traveled a scant 338 feet, with Palmeiro's given a more generous reading of 350.

''A pop fly," Wakefield said of the home run by Palmeiro, who had pledged to bunt three times against Wakefield but wound up hitting the 566th home run of his career.

Francona insisted that the absence of Schilling should not be used as an excuse for the team's play to date.

''I wish our record was better," Francona said, ''but our record is what it is. If they want to give us bonus points for him not being here, I'd take that. But they don't."

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