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ON BASEBALL

A refill would be refreshing

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- He won't say it. He can't say it. He's all they have right now, and he knows it.

He is 39 years old, in his 19th season of pro ball, and he has pitched in over a thousand games, counting the minor leagues. That includes 76 games for the Red Sox this season, matching the career high he pitched last season, which doesn't include the 11 times he was given the ball last October. The one he lost last night knocked the Red Sox out of first place after 64 consecutive days of leading the American League East.

Mike Timlin, operating on fumes?

''I can't say that I am," Timlin said after failing to hold the one-run lead he inherited from Tim Wakefield, when Tampa Bay shocked the Sox with five runs in the eighth inning of a 7-4 Devil Ray win that catapulted the Yankees into first, a position they have held at the end of each of the last seven seasons.

''I'm just as adrenaline-driven as anyone else."

But the truth is, Mike Timlin is tired, just like Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill wore down last October for the Yankees after Joe Torre went to them time and again because he'd run out of options.

Timlin's days as closer were supposed to have ended when the last millennium did, but that was before Keith Foulke, who pushed himself to the max during last autumn's postseason run and may be paying a belated price for his iron-man effort as the game's highest-paid mop-up man.

When Curt Schilling returned to the rotation last month and Timlin became the closer, he said he expected only to serve as a bridge until Foulke could reclaim his job. But Foulke has pitched just six times in 20 days since coming back from knee surgery, his attitude may have broken down worse than his pitching has, and the bullpen is absolutely miserable without him -- a league-worst 5.42 ERA after Timlin was charged with three runs last night.

''I wasn't good at all," Timlin said afterward, his night falling apart on four straight Tampa Bay hits, the most telling blow a two-run triple by Jonny Gomes on a cut fastball that was begging to be launched and was, Gomes driving a line drive that cleared a leaping Edgar Renteria and didn't stop rolling until it reached the fence.

''Either you're on or you're off, and I was off."

This is the quandary the Sox are in. Timlin wasn't sharp because he hadn't pitched since last Saturday, but because he has so few bullets left, Francona can't bring Timlin in on nights he really isn't needed, even though he needs the work to stay sharp. Last year, with a healthy Foulke, Timlin probably would have started the eighth, or, as happened last night, when Wakefield lasted until giving up a two-out hit to Jorge Cantu, Foulke likely would have been summoned for a four-out save.

But now the Sox have Timlin, two matchup guys in Chad Bradford and Mike Myers, and two rookies, Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Hansen. Francona turned to the old reliable, but Timlin's struggles continued with men on base, the percentage of inherited runners scoring against him rising to a league-worst 56.2 (18 of 32).

There are still corners of the Sox clubhouse that believe Foulke can help, though that conviction does not appear to reside either in Francona's office or Foulke's cubicle. One teammate Tuesday night sat next to Foulke on the Sox bench and told him how much he still believed in him, that even if he wasn't the same physically, he was still a guy capable of carrying the Sox the way he did last October.

''He's throwing the ball better than he was in the beginning of the year," catcher Jason Varitek said here this week. ''He's got to get his health back first. This game's always both mental and physical. You have to be strong mentally. When you're not so strong physically, you always have to be strong mentally.

''He's going like this," Varitek said, his hand tracing an ascending arc. ''I see some real good changeups. I see some good location on his fastball, we're mixing in his cutter. He's definitely headed in the right direction."

Another Sox reliever also said Foulke's ''feel" pitches, most importantly his changeup, are getting much better. But time seems to be running out to expect any help from Foulke.

One big-league scout at last night's game said he would give Hansen a chance to close.

''All it would take is one big game for him to do it," the scout insisted. ''Let the kid show he has the guts and the poise to do it."

That seems like a Stephen King fantasy more than a strategy to win a playoff spot. Ten days left, the fuel gauge hovering on empty, Mike Timlin will have to summon whatever reserves he has.

''This is what we all come to do," he said. ''We all come, we all play to be in a pennant race, to play down to the wire. Guys don't come to the big leagues dreaming they'll be in last place and go home at the end of September. That's not what they do."

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