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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Not much getting past Loretta

The scenario was so utterly implausible it was nothing short of stunning when it unfolded the way it did.

When Red Sox rookie Jon Lester jogged off the mound after five innings against Oakland last night with a 3-1 lead, there was certainly no guarantee that outing would translate into his fifth win of the season.

But of all the ways that cushion could go up in smoke, not once did anyone in the Boston clubhouse consider that Mark Loretta would boot a ground ball and cost the lefthander his hard-earned victory.

``You would never expect that," confirmed relief pitcher Manny Delcarmen. ``It never even occurred to me."

At the time, Delcarmen was on the mound, having inherited runners on second and third from Craig Hansen. It was the top of the seventh, one out, and Delcarmen was looking to induce a ground ball from A's left fielder Bobby Kielty.

When Delcarmen watched the ball sink off Kielty's bat, rolling seemingly harmlessly toward second base, where Loretta, the American League All-Star starter, awaited, he congratulated himself.

But then the unthinkable happened. Loretta, who went from April 17 to June 9 without committing a miscue, went to field the ball, but allowed himself a quick glance at the runners . That diversion was his downfall.

``I took my eye off it for a second," Loretta explained. ``And when I went back to it, it was gone. It was a mental lapse."

Two runs scored on the play, and the game was tied, 3-3.

``I was probably trying to do too much," Loretta said. ``It was a big play, obviously. It really hurt us."

If anyone in the Red Sox clubhouse deserves a free pass for one play gone bad, it is Loretta, who, from the first day he arrived in Boston, has handled himself with grace, dignity, and professionalism. He has been a model teammate, and a nearly flawless fielder. To play in 44 consecutive games without an error is to be commended.

To boot one ball on a balmy evening should be forgotten.

``We're not going to be perfect," Loretta conceded. ``But those are frustrating mistakes. Overall, our defense has been pretty good. All you can do is turn the page."

Of course, Loretta was not the only one who had some explaining to do in the wake of this 11-inning, 5-4 loss to the Athletics.

When Trot Nixon led off the ninth with a walk, manager Terry Francona went to his bench and plugged in Willie Harris, his speedy outfielder, who rarely sees daylight on this roster, but was acquired for exactly this kind of situation.

As Jason Varitek stepped to the plate (and squared to bunt on the first pitch), Harris established a healthy lead. Pitcher Kiko Calero look over, looked away, then fired the ball to first baseman Nick Swisher. Harris froze, was caught in between, and was eventually run down in a game of pickle that was scored 1-3-6-1-4.

Harris, who has not built up the same reservoir of good will Loretta has, heard from the irritated fans as he retreated to the dugout.

``I thought [Calero] balked," Harris said. ``Some of the other guys thought the same thing, but the umps didn't call it. What else can you do? You're out."

Harris, like Loretta, understood the magnitude of his mistake. And, like the All-Star second baseman, the utility player conceded he may have been trying to do too much.

``It's frustrating," Harris said. ``But it's part of the game. Everyone wants to play, but everyone can't play. There's only nine spots out there. So when you do get out there, you try to do something big. Sometimes you end up trying too hard."

The game is cruel, at times. Loretta was all smiles when he arrived at Fenway yesterday afternoon, buoyed by stories of his All-Star experience. He is batting over .300, was playing Gold Glove-caliber baseball, and couldn't imagine how things could improve.

Four hours 20 minutes after the game started, a somber Loretta promised to turn the page and be ready today.

``The key is to forget about the good things, and not get too high or too low," he said. ``It was one play. It was one game we didn't win. It doesn't take away from everything that happened [in Pittsburgh] the past few days.

``You can't take it to extremes like that. Just move on. There's nothing we can do about it now."

Errors are part of baseball. They were a repeated part of the Boston Red Sox landscape last season, when the infield was not nearly as cohesive, or impressive. Mark Loretta will make more mistakes before the season is through.

``He just didn't look it into his glove," shrugged his manager. ``Probably happens one out of every thousand."

One out of every thousand are good odds. So are zero in 44 games. Mark Loretta has made a mistake.

Stunning, yes. But perfectly understandable, too. Even All-Stars have holes in their gloves once in a while.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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