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The night's lesson: Chalk it up, then erase it

Jason Varitek suffered the journalistic fools gladly, as he always does.

Answers, people wanted answers. People needed answers, and this is a game, this baseball, that sometimes supplies no easy, understandable answers. They play 162 times. Nobody goes 162-0. Nobody goes 0-162, either, although the team in Detroit has certainly given it a go.

This isn't football, where they have a big press conference immediately after the game and then they have another press conference to further decipher the game less than 18 hours later (even faster, if it's a night game). This is baseball, and sometimes there is no ready explanation for what you just saw. Sometimes, it just was.

Or sometimes there is still another theory.

"This was kind of a full moon-type of game," observed Varitek.

It was a funny one, all right. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have a right to beat the Red Sox every once in a while, and if they're going to win, why begrudge them a shutout (7-0)? As far as Varitek was concerned, Victor Zambrano had real good stuff, and if you have that kind of stuff, good things should happen.

"We got outpitched today," Varitek said. "The guy had a plus fastball, a plus slider, and a plus changeup. He got the big outs at difficult times."

On the other hand, the Red Sox did leave 13 men on base, and though they only had six hits (three off Zambrano in the first seven innings and three off Lance Carter in the final two), they seemed to have lots and lots of decent scoring chances, in part because Mr. Z, while not being very hittable, was placing himself in harm's way by walking five and hitting two.

Lou Piniella has seen a lot of baseball in his day, and he was well aware that his starter had not exactly painted a pitching Rembrandt.

"He gave us seven good, adventurous innings," Lou declared. Adventurous. Now there's a word that covers a lot of territory.

Let the record show that the decision to pull Zambrano with a 6-0 lead after seven innings was not one of those irritating modern micromanaging odes to Tony La Russa. It was a very logical decision. Victor Zambrano had already thrown 127 pitches. You could very easily see him walking the bases loaded to open the eighth.

He was facing a diminished Red Sox lineup that included two guys with season averages of .000. In addition to writing down the name of Andy Abad at first base because Kevin Millar remained incapacitated following a bout with food poisoning, Grady Little was also forced to scratch Johnny Damon's name from the top of the lineup when the center fielder reported that he had sustained an abdominal strain. Hence the presence of Adrian Brown in the leadoff spot. Throw in Trot Nixon's calf problem (he pinch hit in the ninth, but is not yet available for full-time duty), and the skipper was playing with a gun that did not have a bullet in every chamber.

Now that's me making the excuses, not Little. "We feel like we have enough depth to get the job done right now," said the manager. "But naturally we hate to lose any of our regular players when they are not available for service, which has been the case for the last couple of days. But these days shall pass."

The Red Sox had chances, especially early. They left the bases loaded in the second (Gabe Kapler inning-ending fielder's choice), two on in the fourth (another inning-ending Kapler fielder's choice), and three more on in the fifth, which is very likely the inning that prompted him to start thinking in terms of a celestial explanation for the evening's outcome.

Brown walked to lead off the fifth. Nomar Garciaparra, plunging ever so precipitously near the .300 mark, fouled to first baseman Travis Lee on the first pitch. Todd Walker walked. And Manny Ramirez, yup, popped to Lee on the first pitch. David Ortiz quickly went down, 0-and-2, but he wangled his way to a base on balls on the ninth pitch.

That brought up Bill Mueller, who has had so many big hits this year. He ran the count to 2-and-2 before -- how creepy is this -- fouling to Lee. Three aerial outs to the first baseman in one inning? Flip through a thousand scorebooks and get back to me when you find that parlay repeated.

Meanwhile, fair is fair. Victor Zambrano was entitled to take a bow. "Shows you what good stuff he had if those three guys pop up for you," shrugged Varitek.

That wasn't the only interesting subplot. The 33,806 in attendance can say they saw 31-year-old rookie Abad get his first major league hit, an authoritative line-drive single to right in the fourth. They can say they saw a stirring battle between 37-year-old Mike Timlin and 35-year-old Al Martin that was won by the latter, who lined his second pinch hit RBI single to right in this series, and who would later pick up a second hit when Scott Williamson was slow covering the bag on his roller to Abad. And they can say they saw six Red Sox pitchers in the last 3 2/3 innings after Jeff Suppan's latest unsatisfactory starting foray.

But the once-a-year types probably went home in a bad mood. This was the kind of game in which only the purest of the pure could find anything of interest.

It's baseball. Trite as it sounds, you can't win 'em all, even when a fanatical fandom is engulfed in Wild Card Fever.

There's always a tomorrow in baseball. "We don't have time to sulk," said Varitek. "We haven't had time all year to sulk. We've just got to go out and win a ballgame tomorrow."

Sorry. It doesn't get any deeper than that. If you want to micromanage till your hair hurts, you'll have to go to Foxborough.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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