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ON BASEBALL

Breakdowns kept them stuck in idle

SAN FRANCISCO -- Interesting strategy to bench your best hitter, Manny Ramirez, against the National League's most dominating righthander, Jason Schmidt, in order to give him two days off in a row. Ramirez hadn't gotten a breather, manager Terry Francona said, since the day he flew American and became a US citizen. Just a guess here, but if it was incumbent for Everyday Manny to get an extended hiatus, many Sox fans would have voted that Francona give him tomorrow night off at home against struggling righthander Kyle Lohse (2-4, 5.38 ERA) of the Twins rather than against Schmidt, who yesterday pitched his second one-hitter in barely a month for the San Francisco Giants to close out the Sox, 4-0, at SBC Park.

With Ramirez reduced to spectator and runs harder to come by than a "Boston Loves Barry" bumper sticker yesterday afternoon, it would not have been a stretch to think Francona might stray from his usual playbook and order a sacrifice bunt with runners on first and second and none out in the sixth, with Johnny Damon, a good bunter, at the plate. Didn't happen. Francona liked Damon's chances of slapping a ball through, especially with a slow runner at second, Kevin Youkilis, and pitcher Bronson Arroyo occupying first.

"Don't get me wrong," Francona said afterward, "that's not a bad time to bunt, even in my book. But I liked our chances swinging."

That didn't work out, either. Damon popped out to left, the next two batters, Mark Bellhorn and David Ortiz, didn't get the ball out of the infield, and no other Sox runner made it past first.

"The way he was pitching," Francona said, "we had absolutely no room for error."

The Sox certainly couldn't afford what happened an inning later, when third baseman Youkilis was blinded by the sun, second base umpire Sam Holbrook apparently was struck blind, Francona saw red, and Mike Timlin watched a ballgame disappear over the left-field fence when he was Alfonzo'ed, which is what happens to Sox relievers here late in the game when Edgardo Alfonzo is the hitter.

Saturday against Alan Embree, Alfonzo, who two years ago turned down a two-year contract offer from Theo Epstein to sign a four-year pact with the Giants, hit a pinch two-run home run. Yesterday, he came to the plate against Timlin and hit a grand slam when the bases shouldn't have been loaded. That's how it went for the Sox on a weekend when their pitching staff handled the great Bonds better than anyone else -- he was retired in seven consecutive plate appearances for the first time this season -- and still lost two out of three.

The one time all weekend Bonds was credited with a hit, which came in the fateful seventh, he should have been parking his blistered backside on the bench. But Youkilis, whose radar broke down for the second time in two games, lost track of Bonds's popup to shallow left field off Embree, summoned to replace Arroyo with runners on first and second and one out.

"The key is to keep Barry in the ballpark," Embree said. "As soon as that ball goes in the air, I'm thinking, `I got him.' "

But Youkilis, who was slightly overshifted against Bonds and was backpedaling toward the foul line, quickly realized he was in trouble. "I thought the ball was a lot shallower than it was," said the Greek god of walks and the mortal foil for popups.

"It's bright up there," he said. "The sun's tight."

Left fielder Kevin Millar was playing deep and had run a long way for the ball. Could he have kept coming and made a play, especially when he recognized that Youkilis was in distress? Possibly. But Millar, noting that the runner at second, Michael Tucker, was less than halfway to third, said he deliberately pulled up to make the play that he did, which was to field the ball on one hop and throw to third, where Nomar Garciaparra gave a first baseman's stretch and gloved Millar's hard peg well ahead of the sliding Tucker.

"That play," Millar said, "worked out exactly the way I wanted."

Except for one thing. Holbrook, rotating over because third base umpire Paul Nauert had accompanied Youkilis into short left field, blew the call.

That was not merely the opinion of Garciaparra, who flapped his arms, or Francona, who flapped his arms and gums and was rewarded with his first ejection as Sox manager.

In the Giants' broadcast booths, on both the radio and TV sides, Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow, former big leaguers both, were telling their audiences that Tucker clearly was out. "By 3 or 4 feet," Kuiper said.

"The throw beat him," the Sox manager said. "But at that point, I didn't care what [Holbrook] told me." No point, he added, to watch a replay, "Doesn't matter," he said. "The game's over."

Soon it would be, as Alfonzo jumped on a fat sinker from Timlin and hit it into the seats in left, not far from where he'd taken Embree the day before.

A long flight home had just taken on more ballast. It was of small comfort to the Sox that they'd handcuffed Bonds (a single, four walks, two intentional, in 13 plate appearances).

"As far as that goes, it was a moral victory, I guess," Embree said. "I think we did a good job against him this series. We didn't make mistakes like other guys make mistakes. When Barry gets a mistake, he hammers `em."

Yesterday, Bonds didn't have to. The hammer was in Schmidt's hands, and he used it. 

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