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ON BASEBALL

Starters must stop it

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It has become a head game. Every starter who takes the ball feels he needs to stop this hideous streak that has produced a 7.98 ERA from starters over the last nine games.

Tim Wakefield took the ball last night with the intention of ending the cycle of horror, but was unsuccessful. Thus, Curt Schilling gets the ball tonight in the hopes of ending a four-game losing streak and, more importantly, helping return the rotation to one of the best in the majors.

Easier said than done? Right now, it feels near impossible.

Wakefield wasn't awful in last night's 5-2 loss to the Royals, but he was far from dazzling, and was the first to admit it. He lasted 6 2/3 innings and allowed nine hits and four earned runs, but he walked four, one with the bases loaded.

The entire rotation is searching for answers. After the game, Pedro Martinez sat at a table in the locker room with an ice pack on his pitching shoulder after a day of trying to work out some of his recent problems. Derek Lowe was looking over his shoulder. Schilling wasn't far behind, offering advice.

Manager Terry Francona has tried to figure it out to the point where he may be outthinking himself. Keeping Wakefield, who has pitched better than most of the starters, out of the Colorado series, which starts June 15 in Denver, doesn't make a lot of sense. Thin air, heavy air, who cares?

"I just work here," said Wakefield, in response to questioning about his turn being skipped. "I'm not paid to make those decisions."

While Wakefield volunteered to miss one start earlier this season, he clearly didn't raise his hand for this one. He will go eight days without starting, but will be on call to relieve Bronson Arroyo in Colorado. Does it make sense? Nothing seems to at the moment.

Asked whether he was looking forward to seeing Schilling go out there tonight, Francona said, "I'm always comfortable sending Schill out there. I was just as comfortable sending Wake out there. It goes back to the more good pitchers you have, these things should stop. That would certainly be the hope."

Right now, the hope is far from the reality. Maybe one good Schilling start will get the ball rolling. Maybe Martinez found what he was looking for in his side session.

"It was frustrating that I couldn't stay out of a big inning," lamented Wakefield. "I tried to hold them and I ran into problems in the fourth and the fifth. I'm not making good pitches right now. I felt the ball was moving, but it wasn't moving like it was supposed to. I just wasn't making good pitches, especially when I needed to."

When a team is going bad, the other team senses it. Royals manager Tony Pena, whose own team has struggled most of the season, was trying to make things happen by sending his runners against the knuckleballer, and that produced opportunities for Kansas City.

"I'm trying my best and I understand what's going on with our team," said Wakefield. "We're not pitching too well right now. You want to try to stop the bleeding as well as you can. I just didn't get the job done tonight."

Though not a spokesman for those in the rotation, Wakefield was clearly disturbed over the starters' recent ineffectiveness.

"I can't answer it for anybody right now," he said. "I can only answer it for myself. Mentally, I feel great. Mechanically, I'm a little bit off right now, not making the pitches I need to make."

Nobody's making the pitches they need to. The only pitcher on the staff whose ERA is below 4.50 over the last nine games is reliever Anastacio Martinez. Over the last five games, the Sox have played four opponents in three cities and three time zones over a six-day stretch.

"We know the schedule before we even start the season," said Wakefield. "It seems all the little things that usually don't happen right now are happening. Just go out and get them tomorrow and try our best. That's all we can do."

Francona was asked whether it's time for a team meeting. He didn't dismiss the notion. But a meeting won't help a pitcher on 3 and 2. Right now, it's up to Schilling. And the role of stopper is precisely what the Sox had in mind when they acquired him last November. Now, more than ever, would be a time to make it happen. Because nobody else is.

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