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INDIANS 7, RED SOX 6

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Despite dramatics in ninth, Red Sox lose fifth straight

CLEVELAND -- Hall of Famer Eddie Murray has a novel approach to slump-breaking: The Indians hitting coach lights incense in the clubhouse before a game.

Maybe the Red Sox should try that.

Incense, voodoo, prayer, whatever. The Sox need something to free them from the bonds of their worst May start (0-5) since 1976, when "Play That Funky Music" hit the charts.

Despite a rousing attempt in the ninth inning to overcome a 7-2 deficit -- Johnny Damon struck a three-run homer for the biggest blow -- the Sox ultimately swallowed a 7-6 loss before 16,070 at Jacobs Field. It was almost fitting that their mistake in the Jake unfolded before the smallest crowd to witness a Sox game this season.

"Great teams go through adversity," Damon said, "and this is ours right now."

While the Sox remained lost at the plate for the first eight innings -- things got so bad that David Ortiz could muster little more than a meek smile when Japanese reliever Kazuhito Tadano tried to fool him with a 52-mile-an-hour eephus pitch -- they faltered in the field almost as badly as they flailed with the bats. Third baseman Bill Mueller, one of the team's surest arms, committed two costly throwing errors that cleared the way for the Indians to score five unearned runs against Derek Lowe in the fourth inning.

"I lost this game for these guys," Mueller said. "It was just two bad throws. It's pretty basic."

The loss also cost the Sox sole possession of first place in the American League East, as the Yankees caught them with a 10-8 comeback win later last night in Oakland. The Sox had been alone atop the division since April 24.

"We'll keep trying to do the right thing," manager Terry Francona said. "There's no doubt in my mind that we're a very good team and we'll bounce right back."

All the bounces last night seemed to go Cleveland's way as the Indians exploited Lowe's sinkerball, spraying grounders from one foul line to the other. Less sharp than usual, Lowe allowed the Tribe to find enough holes to run up the seven runs on 10 hits, two walks, and Mueller's errors over five-plus innings. Lowe fell to 3-2 even though his ERA dropped to 4.72.

The Indians, rather than trying to pull Lowe's sinker, spent much of the night pounding it to the opposite field or up the middle.

"It was a frustrating night because I felt going into the game we had a pretty good game plan," Lowe said. "I give them credit. They made adjustments, and that's what this game is about. They had me running all over the field, basically."

Trailing, 2-1, the Sox let the game slip away amid the fourth-inning mayhem. After the Indians scored twice on Mueller's errors, Lowe seemed poised to take control when Matt Lawton bounced into a doube play, which allowed another run for a 5-1 Cleveland lead.

"When you give a team more than three outs, you're going to give up runs," Francona said. "It kind of snowballed on us that inning."

Lowe did himself no favors by walking Omar Vizquel, and surrendering a run-scoring double to Jody Gerut and a run-scoring single to Victor Martinez, putting the Sox in a 7-1 hole. The Indians collected five hits in the inning.

"Your job as a pitcher is to stop the bleeding, to make pitches so the inning doesn't continue," Lowe said. "When they had up to five and six hits in an inning, it's probably not going to end up too pretty, which it didn't."

When he was lifted after surrendering a single to open the sixth, Lowe kicked a barrel in the dugout.

"The most disappointing thing from my end is that the starting pitching has been phenomenal all year and the team needs the starting pitchers to keep us in the game," he said. "When you're down, 7-1, in the fourth inning, it's not exactly a quality start."

Just when it looked like the Sox would plod silently toward another punchless defeat, Manny Ramirez uncorked a gargantuan, 459-foot blast off Cleveland starter Jason Davis leading off the sixth. Then the Sox went to work in the ninth against Tadano.

"If you told me going into the ninth that we would have the go-ahead run up, that's a lot to ask for," Francona said.

Brian Daubach doubled leading off, David McCarty walked, and Mueller's grounder to second moved the runners to second and third. Pinch hitter Gabe Kapler delivered a run-scoring single to put runners at first and third for Damon. Cleveland manager Eric Wedge signaled for Tadano to make a couple of throws to first to give lefthander Scott Stewart more time to warm up and face Damon. But Tadano got his signals crossed and fired a pitch, which Damon drove over the wall in right to close the gap to a run with one out.

On came Stewart, who surrendered a single to Mark Bellhorn before he got Ortiz to ground toward second. The lead runner was cut down, and the Indians had a good chance to end the game with a double play, but Stewart did not cover first. In any case, former Sox farmhand Rafael Betancourt was summoned to face Ramirez and fanned him.

The Sox were left to hope they could gain some momentum from Damon's homer.

"It stinks losing, but we know how good our team is," Damon said. "This isn't going to last forever."

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