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DEVIL RAYS 7, RED SOX 0

Visitor's hour at Fenway

Devil Rays, Zambrano zero in and handcuff Sox

The calendar seemed sweetly aligned for the Red Sox. They were playing on their winningest day of the week (they were 17-7 on Wednesdays) in a month that was shaping up as their finest of the season (they were 10-4 in September) against an opponent they had thumped as often as any other this year (they were 10-4 against the Devil Rays).

So much for symmetry. The day, the month, the opponent, the whole shebang came crashing down on Grady Little's guys last night as they got ambushed on the road to the postseason by an unheralded righthander, Victor Zambrano, in a 7-0 loss to the Rays before 33,806 at Fenway Park. It marked the first time this season the Sox were blanked in the Fens.

"I don't think we expected to go undefeated the rest of this month," Todd Walker said. "We're not going to hang our heads over the loss. That guy threw an outstanding game."

A Sox slayer, Zambrano limited baseball's most potent lineup to three hits over seven innings as he improved to 4-0 with a save at Fenway Park, accounting for Tampa Bay's last five victories in the Hub. Lance Carter pitched the final two innings to finish off the silent Sox.

"He made some good pitches and we didn't hit them," Little said of Zambrano. "It was as simple as that."

The loss sliced Boston's lead in the wild-card race to 1 1/2 games as the Mariners dumped the Rangers, 5-1. The Sox also squandered a chance to gain on the division-leading Yankees, 5-3 losers to the Orioles.

Part of the problem may have been that Zambrano faced the Sox without three of their regulars -- Johnny Damon (abdominal strain), Trot Nixon (strained left calf), and Kevin Millar (food poisoning) -- in the starting lineup. Instead, the Sox sent out two Triple A call-ups, center fielder Adrian Brown and first baseman Andy Abad, while Gabe Kapler continued to start for Nixon in right field.

All three of the ailing regulars are expected back soon, though today would barely be soon enough considering the circumstances.

"We better have them back here pretty quickly or we aren't gonig to make the playoffs," Walker said. "It's hard to expect Andy Abad and Adrian Brown and those guys who haven't been with us all season long to carry that load. We have to have our starting nine in there in order to compete these last couple of weeks."

Still, it was hard to blame the fill-ins for the futility, particularly since Abad and Kapler collected two of the three hits off Zambrano. The Sox wasted a number of scoring opportunities against Zambrano, who also walked five and hit two batters, as several of Boston's top run producers went hitless, including Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz.

"We feel like we have some depth to get the job done right now," Little said. "But naturally we hate to lose any of our regular players, which has been the case for the last couple of days. But these days shall pass."

Boston's pitching also paled in comparison with the nonpareil performances Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe submitted in the first two games of the series. Starter Jeff Suppan got tagged for five runs (four earned) on 10 hits and three walks over 5 1/3 innings before relievers Brandon Lyon and Scott Williamson each surrendered a run to the Rays, who had lost seven of their previous eight games.

Suppan, who was under pressure from the start, was unable to pitch a single 1-2-3 inning before he departed with the Sox trailing, 5-0.

"We need to win all the games," Suppan said, "so obviously tonight was a little frustrating to put the team in a hole like that."

The shutout unfolded even though the Sox set the major league record for extra-base hits in a season with 608, surpassing the 1996 Mariners. The trouble was, they were unable to record any timely hits, though they had base runners in every inning but the first and the eighth.

Their woes began in the second inning, when they loaded the bases with one out before Abad fanned and Kapler bounced into an inning-ending fielder's choice. In the third inning, Garciaparra was hit by a pitch and stole second. But after Zambrano walked Walker, Ramirez ended the opportunity by grounding into a double play.

The scenario was similar in the fourth inning, when Zambrano plunked Jason Varitek with a pitch before Abad lined a two-out single to right (his first big league hit), sending Varitek to second. This time, though, Kapler grounded out to strand the runners.

"I got the hit out of the way, but we ended up losing the game," Abad said. "And that's one thing this clubhouse doesn't like to do is lose here."

The fifth inning proved just as fruitless -- and a bit more frustrating -- for the Sox. Brown got things rolling by drawing a walk leading off, only for Garciaparra to pop out on Zambrano's next pitch. Then Walker reached on his second walk of the game before Ramirez popped up the next pitch. As if on cue, Zambrano issued yet another walk, this to Ortiz, who battled out of an 0-and-2 hole in a nine-pitch at-bat to load the bases. But that, too, went for naught as Bill Mueller also popped out.

"He did a great job," Varitek said of Zambrano. "He had a great slider he threw any time in the count and a good changeup to go along with 92-93 [mile-per-hour fastball]."

The setback dropped the Sox to 3-3 on the homestand as they prepare for tonight's finale against the Rays. A loss would not sit well, but no one expects a victory to come easily.

"We're not playing church softball," Walker said. "You just can't hang up four wins in a row because we're playing the Devil Rays. They have a solid team and we have to do our best just to stay with them."

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