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INDIANS 2, RED SOX 1

Sox stuck in idle

Skid reaches four with clutch failure

CLEVELAND -- When Curt Schilling, the hitchhiker, tosses his equipment bag into the F-150 truck in the Ford commercial and confides that he's bound for Boston to break an old curse, it almost seems as if he could write the rest of the story himself.

If only it were that easy.

Schilling played his role smartly last night, ceding the Indians only two runs over seven innings to give the Sox every opportunity to avoid opening May with a fourth straight loss for the first time in 16 years. Trouble was, the Sox offense continued to gain as much traction as an F-150 with four blown tires.

Stymied yet again by their woeful inability to deliver in the clutch, Terry Francona's crew bowed quietly before Cleveland starter Jake Westbrook and a trio of relievers in a dispiriting 2-1 loss before 16,285 in the chill at Jacobs Field.

"Any time this team loses four games in a row, there's something terribly wrong," said Johnny Damon, who came within 90 feet of tying the score with one out in the ninth inning before the Sox stranded him.

Terribly wrong? How about going 2 for 13 with runners in scoring position to drop their league-worst average to .216? Or going hitless in their only at-bat with the bases loaded to fall to .189 in those situations? Or stranding 13 runners to increase their season total to 222, tops in the majors? Or suffering their final indignity by stranding Damon as former Sox farmhand Rafael Betancourt dispatched them for his first save of the season and only the second of his career?

Wrong enough? The Sox ended four innings with runners on third base.

"It's disappointing," said Brian Daubach, who ended the sixth inning on third after he had doubled with one out. "In close games, that's definitely the difference."

The loss shaved Boston's lead over the Yankees to a mere game, which might be dire if there weren't 137 games to play.

"If we keep grinding, somebody is going to get a big hit or a little hit," Francona said. "We just have to keep grinding and create more opportunities and we'll be fine."

As a measure of how difficult the curse-breaking business could be, Schilling lost a chance to improve to 4-1 even as he lowered his ERA to 3.19 by scattering seven hits and a walk. His only damaging mistake was a fastball Victor Martinez swatted for a two-run homer with two out in the first inning.

Schilling took it hard, as if it were his responsibility to overcome even the most crushing offensive deficiency.

"You've got to win games like this as a pitching staff," he said. "When your offense is trying to find it, if they're only going to score two, you've got to give up one, and if they're only going to score one, you've got to give up none. I didn't do my job."

Not quite. His teammates knew the predicament they created for Schilling. There is trouble in Soxville, at least in the short term. The once-mighty lineup has hit .143 (4 for 28) with runners in scoring position over the last three games and has scored a total of only 10 runs over the last four games.

"It stinks because you ruin a great pitching performance from Schilling," Damon said. "That one pitch was the difference in the game."

Schilling threw it immediately after Jody Gerut singled.

"It was probably the only [pitch] I threw all night that I didn't want to throw and threw anyway," said Schilling.

Martinez jumped on the fastball and jolted it 400 feet to right for a two-run homer, all the runs the Indians needed.

"I knew what I wanted to throw him, but I went away from it," Schilling said. "I called the wrong pitch and it ended up costing us the game."

That's one way to look at it. Another is that Sox batters let the game slip away. They mustered their sole run in the seventh inning when David Ortiz doubled home Damon, who had walked and taken second on Bill Mueller's walk. Otherwise, there was a litany of futility:

* Second inning: Varitek doubled with two out and went no farther.

* Third inning: Mark Bellhorn singled and reached third on Pokey Reese's sacrifice and Damon's ground out, then died there.

* Fourth inning: Daubach reached on an error before Varitek and Kevin Millar singled to load the bases, all going nowhere else as Bellhorn grounded into a double play.

* Sixth inning: Daubach doubled and advanced to third on Varitek's ground out before he was stranded.

* Seventh inning: After Ortiz doubled home Damon, the Sox loaded the bases with one out before Daubach and Varitek went down swinging.

* Ninth inning: Damon singled, stole second, and dashed to third on the catcher's throwing error, putting himself in prime position to score with one out and Ortiz striding to the plate.

"I felt very good with David Ortiz there," Francona said.

Even so, the manager said, "I wasn't sure who was going to win it, but I thought somebody was going to."

Yet Ortiz lashed a hard grounder to second for the second out before Manny Ramirez walked and Daubach flied out to end it. That left Francona to state the obvious: "We just didn't get a hit when we needed it."

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