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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

This loss is about as ugly as it can get

The long night at the park began with a couple of Sox stars complaining about negative coverage and front-runner fans. Then Derek Lowe announced he's only talking to the media on days he pitches, and Pedro Martinez blew off the annual team photo. Everybody happy?

In the end, none of that mattered anymore. One night after an excruciating loss in this roller coaster season, the Sox sucked all the air out of Fenway, blowing a 5-1 lead and succumbing to the A's again in ghastly fashion, this time by the score of 8-6.

The blame pie is big enough to feed an entire Nation. We saw Bullpen Redux, with Byung Hyun Kim blowing a 6-4 lead in the eighth. We saw the vaunted offense strand a whopping 17 base runners against six Oakland pitchers. We saw Nomar (no RBIs since Aug. 8) strand four more runners while Manny left five. We saw what looked every bit like the death of a season.

That's silly, of course. The Sox are still only two games behind Oakland in the wild-card chase and diva Pedro goes to the mound tonight against a lineup without a .280 hitter. There are 36 more games to play and there's no reason the Sox can't turn on the jets.

But they have lost two consecutive Fenway series, three straight games, and nine of 13 games when it matters most. They are a whopping 7 1/2 games behind the Yankees, actually closer to the Twins and White Sox than they are to the Bronx Bombers.

"We actually thought this was our night," acknowledged Johnny Damon. "We felt like we had this game. It's huge. We could have pulled even."

Ugh. They were ahead, 5-1 in the fourth, 6-2 in the fifth and 6-4 in the eighth. That's when Kim came on and surrendered four runs (three earned) while retiring only one batter. He was pelted with boos when he came off the mound and said later that he's heard, "a lot of people have a negative attitude toward this team."

Huh? The guy who doesn't understand English now believes fans and media have turned on the Red Sox? Where did you hear that, oh young Byung Hyun?

"No one in particular," he told his translator. "But I hear a lot of comments like that."

Not good, ladies and gentlemen. This team has been fun and festive throughout the season, providing unusual thrills. Suddenly they think the Nation has turned on them?

Last night's macabre defeat came at the worst possible moment because the Sox badly needed the win against their main rival, and the Boston clubhouse is starting to show the cracks that come when a group carries 85 years of hard-luck history.

Newcomer Kevin Millar felt way too much was made of Tuesday's awful loss and before last night's game said, "as miserable as everyone wants to talk about, we're one game out in the wild card." He talked about those who are "frontrunnery." He also said he was compiling a list of names of skeptics who would not be allowed in the Sox clubhouse once the playoffs start. He made a big deal out of the fact that none of the Sox critics ever played the game. (Note to Millar: the media person toughest on the Sox in the wake of Tuesday's loss was Dennis Eckersley, who will soon be fitted for a Hall of Fame cap).

Now what? The pressure mounts for tonight's game. It's certainly a good night for Pedro to be pitching.

Pedro has officially morphed into Diana Ross. Blowing off yet another mandatory commitment last night, his message to his teammates seems to be, "The rules apply to you suckers, but not me." Got to be good for morale.

"I think somone is going to mention it to him," CEO Larry Lucchino offered, weakly.

Of course, none of that matters if Pedro can beat the A's tonight. They Sox need him more than ever. Tonight's game certainly qualifies as the latest in a long line of "must wins."

"We're at a point where we need to head upward," said Grady Little, who has had better days. "And tomorrow we're running Pedro Martinez on the mound."

Like a lot of his players, Grady was asked to rank last night's loss. He said, "All of our losses are tough. I can't put any more weight on one than another."

He doesn't have to do that. We'll do it for him. Last night's loss was the worst loss of the season and it will have the fandom in a funk until/unless Pedro stuffs the A's tonight.

Sox management understands this tendency to bury a team that is only two games out of a playoff spot. Overreaction comes with the territory when you're playing in a region that cares about the baseball team more than it cares about the local economy.

"Overreaction? In Boston? You're kidding me," said Lucchino, tongue planted in cheek. "I get a sense of that almost every day when we lose. But we'll take the bad with the good. On the positive side, we know that people really care. It's hard to tell fans that they can't care too much."

Owner John Henry, like Millar a veteran of too many apathetic years in Florida, added, "I think that happens after every game. When you care about something, you can overreact, in a positive or negative manner. It becomes personal."

It's very personal, this century-old affair between the town and the team. Newcomers always react strongest. You won't hear Tim Wakefield or Trot Nixon making comments like Millar's or Kim's. They've been around the block at Yawkey Way. They know it's the price you pay for playing for the Red Sox.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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