DENVER -- Take it from a survivor of the mile-high boneyard for pitchers.
"It's not a fun place to pitch," Curt Schilling said last night, sharing some of the advice he could offer teammates like Bronson Arroyo, who had never before taken the mound at Coors Field. "It's a matter of really changing your expectations sometimes and having your goal be giving up one less run than the other guy."
Sage advice for a hitter-happy park where an average of 14.5 runs are scored per game.
The only trouble was, the other guys ended up scoring a few more runs as the Rockies rolled to a 6-3 victory over the Sox last night before 40,489, the largest crowd at Coors since Opening Day. The loss dropped the Sox a season-high 4 1/2 games behind the Yankees, who dumped the Diamondbacks, 4-2, in Arizona.
"No way did we think we were going to score only three runs," Johnny Damon said. "It's a funny game. You scratch your head every time you try to think what will happen."
With the Sox playing for the first time in the regular season in Colorado's thin air, the game turned amid a 3-3 deadlock in the third inning when right fielder Gabe Kapler's throwing error to second base on Jeromy Burnitz's single allowed Vinny Castilla to score the decisive run. Then the game got away from the Sox in the eighth when Todd Helton, who is batting .429 in June, whipsawed a 93-mile-per-hour 3-and-2 pitch from Alan Embree for a two-run homer.
"I was going for the punchout, and he fought off some good pitches the whole at-bat," Embree said. "Then I threw a good pitch in and he hammered it."
The Rockies, who have lost 20 of their last 25, snapped an eight-game losing streak as they played without two of their top offensive threats, Larry Walker and Preston Wilson, who are on the disabled list. The Rockies prevailed largely because the Sox stranded 12 runners, including leaving the bases loaded in the fifth inning as Nomar Garciaparra lined out, Jason Varitek bounced into a fielder's choice, and Kevin Youkilis grounded out.
"You're not thinking just one run, you're thinking, `Let's have a big inning,' " Francona said of the fifth-inning futility. "When it didn't work out that way, obviously it was a big inning for them."
The Sox also ran themselves out of a prime scoring chance with one out and runners at the corners in the second inning. When Varitek broke from first base on a 3-and-2 strike to Youkilis, the Rockies hung him up between the bases. Colorado catcher Charles Johnson fired to second baseman Aaron Miles, prompting Manny Ramirez to lurch toward the plate from third base. Miles fired to third and caught Ramirez diving back for an inning-ending double play.
Francona took the blame, saying he put Varitek in motion and crediting Ramirez with responding appropriately when Varitek got trapped.
"That's probably an error on my part," Francona said. "That's why in those situations we don't run maybe as much as other people, but I thought Youkilis would put the ball in play. What I think was playing the percentages went against us."
Arroyo tried to follow Schilling's recipe for success as the Sox opened their first swing of the season through National League venues, with stops in Colorado and San Francisco. Boston's fifth starter entered the game winless in his previous four outings with a 7.65 ERA. But Coors is the only place in baseball where a 7.65 ERA is pretty average (the Rockies had logged a 7.42 ERA there entering last night). And Arroyo was better than average. Much better, considering the venue.
He struggled only in the third inning when he surrendered three hits and a walk to account for two Colorado runs before Kapler's miscue allowed another.
"He just had the one weird inning," Varitek said, "but he did a good job of keeping us in that game."
In all, Arroyo surrendered four runs (three earned) on seven hits and a walk over six innings. His only major problem was Castilla, who entered the game hitting .152 in June but feasted on Arroyo, as he has done in the past. Castilla launched a solo homer and singled home a run as he improved to .500 (4 for 8) against Arroyo with three homers and six RBIs.
Arroyo was angry at himself, mostly for allowing a 3-1 lead to slip away in the third inning.
"A lot of times this year, the team has gone out and battled to get runs and I've given them right back," Arroyo said. "That's why I haven't won too many games."
It hardly helped that the Sox struggled against Colorado starter Joe Kennedy and his relief corps. Wasting too many chances against Kennedy, who allowed 12 baserunners in five innings, the Sox scored only on Mark Bellhorn's two-run double and Garciaparra's sacrifice fly in third inning.
With Kennedy gone after the fifth, the Sox mustered only two hits over the last four innings against a Rockie bullpen that ranks among the most giving in the game (Colorado relievers entered the game with a 5.65 ERA, compared with Boston's 3.19).
Bellhorn, who extended his hitting streak to 13 games, reached base four times as he doubled twice, walked and got hit by a pitch. Ramirez reached four times, doubling and drawing three walks. Damon and Kapler each contributed two singles. But the Sox otherwise generated little momentum.
Still, they had a chance to catch the Rockies in the ninth when Shawn Chacon loaded the bases by plunking Bellhorn, walking Ramirez with two outs, and surrendering an infield single to Garciaparra before he muffled Boston's last gasp by fanning Varitek on a 94-mile-per-hour fastball.
Despite the setback, the Sox expect better days ahead.
"I don't think this game should be a tone-setter for the rest of the trip," Embree said.