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ORIOLES 7, RED SOX 3

Waiting to exhale

Despite loss, Sox on verge of clinching

A whiz at card tricks, John Burkett met his match yesterday in Tim Wakefield's pal, Michael Finney, a professional magician who has entertained on Comedy Central and for President Bush at his inaugural bash in 2001. Finney, using Burkett as his foil, completely flummoxed his amateur counterpart in the Red Sox clubhouse with a series of pregame card and rope tricks that left Burkett and his teammates in stitches.

The scene could have served as a magical prelude to a wondrous moment last night if the Sox had seized a sweet opportunity to clinch their first postseason berth in four years. The Mariners let the Sox clinch at least a tie for a wild-card berth by bowing to the Angels, 4-0, before Grady Little's crew even took the field.

But the magic stopped at the clubhouse door. Burkett had no rabbit in a hat -- or bullets in his arm -- as the Orioles played a nasty trick on the righthander by striking for seven runs and routing him before he could record a second out in the first inning on their way to a 7-3 victory before 34,607 in the Fens. The outing was the shortest of Burkett's 14-year career.

"Definitely not the night I was looking for," he said. "I left balls over the plate and they took advantage of it."

Little might have seen it coming. After all, when he stopped at his local store in the morning to check on his entry in the Mega Millions drawing, the computer flashed, "No winner."

"That takes the wind out of your sails right there," he said.

Much like Burkett did to the Sox, who will have another chance to clinch tonight when Derek Lowe faces the Orioles in the regular-season finale at Fenway Park. The Mariners can't help today; they have the day off.

If the Sox fail tonight, they will have three more chances to clinch, all at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field.

"Hopefully, we can clinch it here at home," Johnny Damon said. "It just wouldn't be the same if we clinched it at Tampa Bay in front of 10,000 fans or so and have to take a bus out to [the entertainment district in] Ybor [City]. That wouldn't be our style. We'd like to do it here and get the fans into it."

They may need better from Lowe than they got from Burkett in his final start of the regular season. It remains to be seen if Burkett will start again for the Sox. His last chance could come in the postseason since the Sox are unlikely to re-sign him. His two-year, $11 million contract expires after the season.

Since no starter in baseball is looser than Burkett before a game (he is one of the few who banters freely with reporters and others before his starts), it's all but certain the magic hijinks before the game did not affect his performance -- or the team's.

"There was a lot of emotion around this clubhouse before the game started," Little said when asked if Burkett may have been too keyed-up. "I can't answer that. I'm sure each individual handles that a little differently."

To Burkett, it simply was a matter of poor command. A finesse pitcher, he needs his command to survive.

"It was just a bad night," he said. "I threw a lot of pitches over the middle of the plate."

Tony Batista inflicted the most serious damage, thumping a grand slam over the Monster onto Ted Williams Way to lead Baltimore's seven-run onslaught in the first inning. As a result, catcher Jason Varitek noted, "We weren't around that game long enough to really be involved."

On a night that turned out to be a bad joke, David Ortiz provided the brightest highlights, swatting his 30th and 31st homers to reach the 100-RBI plateau and embellish his resume as one of the team's MVP candidates. He kept hope alive for the sellout throng with help from four relievers -- Brandon Lyon, Bronson Arroyo, Todd Jones, and Scott Williamson -- who combined to hold the Birds scoreless after Burkett's perilous start.

Interestingly, the Orioles seemed to take no satisfaction in depriving the Sox of clinching.

"Not at all," manager Mike Hargrove said. "When they clinch it, I'm going to feel as good for them as anybody will. I've got a lot of friends over there, and Grady Little's done a tremendous job. It looks like they're going to win the wild card, and I think deservedly so."

Burkett was the initial problem for the Sox. A master all season at escaping early predicaments, he failed to find any wiggle room, even after Batista's blast. No sooner did Batista clear the bases than B.J. Surhoff laced a double down the left-field line and Jack Cust doubled into the left-field corner, making it 5-0. When the next batter, Deivi Cruz, beat Burkett to the bag to leg out an infield single to first, Burkett was gone, replaced by Lyon.

"I couldn't stop the bleeding," Burkett said. "It was unfortunate."

Second baseman Todd Walker, who played a pivotal role in Tuesday's thriller with his game-tying, three-run blast with two outs in the ninth inning, contributed to the mess by throwing the ball into the Sox dugout after forcing Cruz at second on a grounder by Brook Fordyce. Cust scored on the error, sinking the Sox in a 6-0 quagmire. Then Jerry Hairston followed with a double into the left-field corner, knocking in Fordyce to make it 7-0.

The Sox also were stymied by Baltimore starter Pat Hentgen, who held them to three runs on six hits, including Ortiz's homers and a run-scoring single by Gabe Kapler, and a walk over 6 1/3 innings before the O's pen completed the job.

That left the larger job unfinished for the Sox.

"It's exciting when it's in front of you, but we've got to take care of business," Varitek said. "We can't put any pressure on ourselves. We just need to do what we've been doing, come back [tonight] and be resilient."

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