Sooner or later the spellbinding and the surreal had to end, and last night it did. Jonathan Papelbon's streak of 25 1/3 scoreless innings spanning 21 appearances went down in the ninth inning, and with it went the Red Sox. They had overcome deficits of 3-0, 4-3, and 6-5, but could not overcome Toronto's last gasp, in the ninth, when they got to Papelbon for three hits -- only one struck hard -- for a 7-6 win on a misty and cold night at Fenway, where it required maximum effort by both the Sox and their 35,881 fans to hang around.
Papelbon came in with the score tied, 6-6, thanks to Mike Lowell's full-count RBI single up the middle in the eighth against high-90s hurler Dustin McGowan (''one of the best at-bats I've seen in a long while," Sox manager Terry Francona said).
Papelbon's initial task was a most untenable one, in the person of Lyle Overbay, who grounded a single to center for his fourth hit of the night, reaching base for the fifth time. Shea Hillenbrand lined to Dustan Mohr in right for an out. But Gregg Zaun grounded a single between third baseman Lowell and shortstop Alex Gonzalez, setting the stage for pesky No. 8 hitter Russ Adams to become the man who finally got to the precocious rookie closer.
Adams got a splitter up in the zone, where Papelbon didn't intend it to be, and sliced it down the right-field line, plating the deciding run.
Papelbon had not allowed a run since Jorge Cantu homered off him Sept. 19. His wasn't the only streak that ended. The Sox had won a major league-record-tying 18 consecutive one-run wins at home, a feat done previously by the St. Louis Browns (1925-26) and Baltimore Orioles (1963-64).
''I'll think about it a little tonight," Papelbon said. ''I'm not going to ponder losing the ballgame for us. I won't lose sleep over this. That would be stupid. The sun will rise tomorrow."
Does he want the ball soon?
''No doubt about it," he said. ''Best-case scenario is we take the lead, one-run lead, and I save it. I want the ball tomorrow. No doubt about it."
The Sox did have a chance to tie it in a wacky ninth inning. Mohr, who had entered for Trot Nixon and struck out looking in the seventh, struck out swinging with two outs in the ninth for his 16th K in 32 at-bats. But the ball got away, and Mohr scampered safely down the line. Willie Harris pinch ran, stole second, and advanced to third on Zaun's wild throw. He would get no closer to home; B.J. Ryan got Jason Varitek looking for his third strikeout of the inning, a 90-mile-per-hour pitch. It was hard to tell from the press box what he threw Varitek.
''I couldn't [tell] either," Varitek said, adding that he determined it to be a backdoor slider. ''I did not read the ball well. I've got to change something against him."
That ended a near comeback on a night of comebacks. ''Tough way to win a ballgame," Francona said.
It was difficult because Josh Beckett again dug a hole.
Beckett, who was 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA through three starts, is now 0-1 with a 9.56 ERA over his last three starts. His pitch counts have been high (he was at 50 through two innings last night) and his control suspect. Consider:
Beckett, in three starts to begin the year: 21 innings, 16 hits, 4 runs (3 earned), 6 walks, 12 strikeouts, 0 home runs, 0 hit batsmen.
Beckett, in his last three starts: 16 innings, 16 hits, 18 runs (17 earned runs), 10 walks, 11 K's, 6 HRs, 3 hit batsmen.
In his last nine innings (his final third of an inning in Toronto April 21, his 3 2/3 innings at Cleveland, and his five innings last night, he's allowed 15 earned runs).
Last night, he fell behind, 3-0, in the second inning, when Toronto scored three times despite mustering only one hit. Beckett went to a full count on Overbay and walked him. He then (unintentionally) hit Hillenbrand with a pitch. Zaun took Beckett to a full count before grounding out, and Adams then worked an eight-pitch walk. To summarize: three full counts and the bases loaded, without a hit. Pitching coach Al Nipper then paid Beckett a visit.
The next batter was Aaron Hill, the same guy Beckett plunked in Toronto leading off the eighth inning April 21, touching off Beckett's implosion (two of the next three batters homered). Last night, Hill, ahead, 1 and 0, laced a two-run double to deep right. Alex Rios tacked on a third run with a sacrifice fly to right.
But the Sox responded, tying it in the bottom of the inning, setting a season high for consecutive hits in an inning with five. Manny Ramírez, leading off, singled to left. Nixon singled to left. Varitek singled to center, scoring Ramírez. Lowell singled to right, loading the bases. Wily Mo Peña singled to center, scoring Nixon. And then Gonzalez broke the string but got a ball deep enough to right to score Varitek. Sox 3, Blue Jays 3.
Toronto went ahead, 4-3, in the fifth, on an Overbay RBI single to center. Beckett exited after five innings, temporarily on the hook for the loss, before the Sox' offense picked him up in the sixth. Ramírez (3 for 4 with a walk) led off with a ground-rule double down the left-field line, his third hit in three at-bats. The Sox made two quick outs, leaving it up to Lowell.
Lowell, with the count 1 and 1 after consecutive offspeed pitches, was sitting offspeed and watched as Toronto starter Roy Halladay sneaked a 91-m.p.h. fastball by him for a called strike. Lowell punched his bat, suggesting he was upset with himself for not offering. Perhaps, he was thinking, his chance had passed. He got it back to 2 and 2 and swung his bat at a fastball away, dropping the ball into right field, into some slop near the fence for an RBI single. He came around for the lead on a rocket of a Peña double to the right-center-field gap, giving the Sox a 5-4 lead.
In the seventh, with two outs, Toronto answered. Overbay doubled off Keith Foulke to the gap in left-center, reaching base for the fourth time (walk, two singles, double). Hillenbrand then left the park on a 1-and-0 pitch. The wind, blowing in most of the night, had calmed briefly, and Hillenbrand got a Foulke changeup up in the air and two rows deep into the Monster seats in left-center, restoring Toronto's lead, 6-5.
''We had [Mike] Timlin up and they had [Eric] Hinske sitting over there [on the bench to pinch hit]," Francona said. ''So you've got to face one of them. Foulke had thrown the ball so well."
Lowell got that run back with the eighth-inning RBI single, his third hit of the night and the 1,000th of his career. That made it 6-6, but it would not be enough.
''We kept clawing back," Lowell said. ''I think we came back three times. It hurt. But it's still early and we're still playing well. They can really hit."