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WHITE SOX 7, RED SOX 2

Red Sox droop at end

They must pull selves up after White Sox win series

Good thing the Red Sox have about as much chance of winning the American League East as the Brockton Rox. Capturing a division title would set up a possible first-round series against the White Sox, and no team in baseball has made Grady Little's record-breaking batters look meeker than the crew from Chicago's South Side.

With their wild-card lead in peril, the Red Sox yesterday issued a chilling reminder of how treacherous the final sprint toward the playoffs may be as they remained punchless against the White Sox in a 7-2 loss before 34,174 at Fenway Park. The White Sox protected their share of the lead with the Twins in the AL Central -- and left the Red Sox clinging to a half-game edge over the Mariners in the wild-card scramble -- as they took the final two games of the weekend series.

"We just didn't get the job done," Johnny Damon said after Fenway turned as quiet as an empty chapel in the final innings of the defeat. "We ran up against a good Chicago team and didn't play very well."

The Red Sox, who have batted .291 and averaged more than six runs a game overall, hit just .195 and averaged 3.4 runs in nine games against Chicago, making it a wonder they prevailed in the season series, 5-4. In their latest struggle, the Sox were frustrated at almost every turn by lefthanders Mark Buehrle and Damaso Marte the day after they were steamrolled by Bartolo Colon.

So much for postseason party planning. With 14 games to go, the road to the playoffs appears laced with traps.

"When you get in the position we are in right now, there is nothing that comes easy for you," Little said. "What comes easy for you is losing games. And what we have ahead of us is going to be tough on a daily basis. We are ready for it."

They may need to remain vigilant until the final out -- of the season.

"It's going to come down to definitely the last series and probably even the very last game, so we have to win as many as we can," Damon said. "Hopefully, Oakland or Seattle can help us out."

No one could help them against Buehrle and Co. The Sox mustered nine hits, including a solo blast by Manny Ramirez, his 33d homer of the season. They even put the leadoff batter on base in four of the last five innings. But they went 2 for 13 (.154) with runners on base as Buehrle and Marte repeatedly foiled them, twice by inducing momentum-crushing double plays.

"We were in that game, but the guy pitched out of some jams," Jason Varitek said of Buehrle. "He got some ground balls at the right times. I don't know how many double plays we hit into, but he seemed to pull one out of his pocket when he needed one."

Trailing, 5-2, in the fifth inning, the Sox had plenty of time to close the gap but failed time and again down the stretch. After Gabe Kapler doubled leading off the fifth, the next three batters -- Damian Jackson, Damon, and Bill Mueller -- were unable to get the ball out of the infield, stranding him at third.

"We just went up against a really good team with really good pitching," Kapler said.

The Sox had another sweet opportunity in the sixth after Walker and Ramirez singled, putting runners at first and second with none out. But David Ortiz, who has returned to earth after a meteoric run on the recent road trip, grounded to first, where old friend Brian Daubach started a 3-6-3 double play. The White Sox were surprised Ramirez failed to go in hard at second base to try to break up the play. And the Red Sox were stunned Ortiz was called out at first, though their protest went for naught. In any case, the inning ended with Walker stranded at third.

"That was probably the pivotal point in the ballgame for [Buehrle]," Little said. "We were getting ready to unload on him right there."

After the Sox wasted a leadoff single by Varitek in the seventh, Ramirez rifled a two-out hit to right-center in the eighth, stirring hope in the hushed crowd. But for some inexplicable reason, Ramirez tried to stretch the single into a double and easily was gunned down by Magglio Ordonez.

Little clearly was rankled by Ramirez's latest gaffe on the basepaths, making no secret of his bedrock belief that the Sox cannot survive "a whole lot of self-destructing" in their push toward the postseason.

Still, the Sox had one last chance to rally in the ninth after Ortiz singled leading off against Marte. But when Kevin Millar extended his nagging slump to 1 for 24 by bouncing into a double play, the opportunity fizzled.

It was hard to blame Nomar Garciaparra's absence because of flu-like symptoms for the loss, since he, too, was slumping badly (5 for 73). Nor was Sox starter John Burkett necessarily to blame, though he was less than sharp, surrendering a two-run homer to Carlos Lee in the first inning and three more runs in the fifth.

"Frustrating? Yes," Burkett said. "I know I'm on a team that scores runs. Two runs isn't going to beat us. That's the way it was today. Two runs didn't beat us. It was the three I gave up later in the fifth inning."

Yet the Sox remained in the hunt for a playoff berth.

"That's all we can ask for," Varitek said. "That's what we want to present to our fans. Hopefully, everybody rallies behind us over these next two weeks and pulls us through some of these games."

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