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ROYALS 5, RED SOX 2

Red Sox get royal welcome

Bats gobbled up in series opener

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- With his first child scheduled to graduate from high school today and his wife understandably anxious about making the milestone a memorable event, Terry Francona hurried home by private jet after last night's game "to save my marriage."

The Red Sox manager had plenty of time en route to consider how to save his team from a debilitating June swoon.

With Tim Wakefield struggling to reverse a trend in which Sox starters have posted a 7.98 ERA over the last nine games and with the offense sputtering, Francona's crew came up short against the Royals, 5-2, before 28,182 at Kauffman Stadium. The Sox lost for the fourth straight time, fell to 0-3 in June, and slipped below .500 (16-17) since they opened the season on a 15-6 burst.

"It's no fun," Francona said. "We certainly care a lot, but the best thing I know to do -- and part of it is because I believe in them -- is show up [today] and grind through it and make good things happen. Right now, we're just not quite doing that."

Yes, they still miss Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon. And, sure, the loss of Byung Hyun Kim and Scott Williamson has complicated matters. But the pennant-hungry Sox believe they should be good enough even without a corps of key players to stymie the lowly Royals.

"It's just unbelievable how we've been losing, lots of close games," Johnny Damon said. "We need to get back to finding a way to win like we did all last year. We're missing that right now. We need to take a deep look in the mirror and see what everybody's responsibility on this team needs to be."

As for Wakefield, he fared better than a few of his rotation mates (hello, Pedro Martinez, Bronson Arroyo, and Derek Lowe) over the last week. But he was done in largely by walks as he slipped to 4-4 with a 3.76 ERA. Though the Royals tagged him for five runs (four earned) on nine hits, they capitalized on each of their four walks off Wakefield, with three of the batters who walked scoring and the fourth forcing in a run.

"I'm trying my best," Wakefield said. "I understand what's going on with our team. We're not pitching too well right now and we're not playing too well. You want to try to stop the bleeding as best you can, and I just didn't get the job done."

With scoring chances at a premium, the Sox ran themselves out of a sweet one as they trailed, 5-1, and threatened to come back against Kansas City starter Jimmy Gobble with one out in the sixth inning. After Damon and Bellhorn stroked consecutive one-out singles, David Ortiz doubled over right fielder Matt Stairs in the gap, only for things to suddenly get wacky.

Damon held up at second base to tag in case Stairs caught the ball while Bellhorn bore down on second, having a better angle to see the shot would elude Stairs. With only one out and Manny Ramirez on deck, third base coach Dale Sveum initially signaled for the runners to hold at second and third.

"But then I saw Bell was right on Johnny's butt and we were going to have two people at third, so I started Damon up again," Sveum said. "My focus was strictly on Johnny just scoring. I was so caught up in making sure Johnny saw me starting him back up again after having my hands up to hold him that I brain-[cramped] and completely forgot about Bellhorn."

Soon it was too late as Sveum watched Bellhorn round third as the relay from second baseman Tony Graffanino approached the plate.

"I couldn't wave and stop somebody at the same time," Sveum said. "At the time, the only thing I could have done was tackle Bellhorn."

While Damon scored easily, Bellhorn was caught halfway between third and home and run down by catcher Benito Santiago for the second out, all but snuffing a promising rally. The opportunity officially expired when Ramirez flied to left to end the inning, leaving the Sox down, 5-2.

"It might never happen again," Sveum said, "but obviously I have to be more on top of it."

But Gobble was a greater problem, even though the Sox never threatened again. Less than a month after the Sox roughed up the lefty for six runs over five innings in a 9-1 thumping at Fenway Park, Gobble rationed them only two runs over six innings. He retired 15 straight batters between Damon's double leading off the game and Doug Mirabelli's homer leading off the sixth, and ultimately allowed only five hits and walked none.

Nor could the Sox solve four members of Kansas City's bullpen, which on most nights is no match for Boston's.

"We're putting our pitchers in real tough spots where they have to go out and keep us close or shut out teams," Damon said. "That's what's hurting us."

The pitching has hardly helped, though. While Mirabelli described Wakefield's performance as inconsistent, he said much of the staff is struggling along with the knuckleballer.

"We just need to bear down and come out of this little spot we're in right now," Mirabelli said. "I'd have to go out on a limb and say you're not going to see too many four-game losing streaks from this pitching staff. It's too good."

Curt Schilling will try to prove it tonight.

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