DETROIT -- The easy excuse would be to blame it on David Ortiz's nutty last month in Anaheim, Calif. Maybe Ortiz could have made a difference last night if he were playing rather than finishing his five-game suspension somewhere in the Motor City. Ortiz hardly could have fared worse than Orlando Cabrera, who replaced him in the Red Sox batting order and went hitless in five at-bats as his Sox average plunged to .095 (2 for 21).
That would be the easy excuse. And maybe a valid one. But it takes more than one banished batsman to lose a baseball game.
The fact is, the Sox were just good enough to lose as they succumbed to the Tigers, 4-3, in a punchless performance before a sellout crowd of 40,674 at
"I don't think it's bad luck," manager Terry Francona said. "I think it's a matter of them being one run better than us. We just have to be one run better, not one run worse. We've done that a number of times."
The latest defeat dropped the Sox a season-high 10 1/2 games behind the division-leading Yankees, the largest deficit since the Steinbrenner Nine finished the 2002 season with a 10 1/2-game cushion.
"We need to forget about them and worry about ourselves because 10 1/2 games out, that's going to be tough to overcome, especially when not too many teams have played the Yankees well," Johnny Damon said. "We're the team that can beat them and no one else is quite doing it right now."
The Sox also slipped two games back in the wild-card scramble, tied for second with Anaheim behind the Rangers. And they fell to 4-5 on their longest road trip of the season amid their latest run of futility. In bowing to the Tigers, the Sox generated 14 base runners but scored only three times as they went 4 for 15 with runners on base and 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position.
"We left a lot of guys on base, didn't execute, didn't move guys, didn't get the real big hit," said Damon, who went 1 for 4 and was caught stealing in an aborted hit-and-run attempt in the first inning. "I've got to find some way to keep getting on base because it seems when I get on base I score. I've been awful on this road trip."
The loss dropped the Sox to 7-15 in one-run games. They have posted fewer one-run victories than any team in the majors but the Diamondbacks (six). Last year, the Sox led the American League with 26 one-run victories.
"It's a stat we obviously need to improve on," Sox starter Derek Lowe said. "We really need to get on a good roll. I know everybody in the city has been kind of waiting for it."
Lowe dropped to 9-10 as he allowed four runs on nine hits and a pair of walks over seven innings. It was little consolation that he extended the streak of Sox starters pitching at least seven innings to eight games. He was unable to protect a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning or maintain a 3-3 deadlock in the sixth.
"I think we're doing things right to win the one-run games," said Jason Varitek, who launched a solo homer, tripled, and scored two runs. "We just did things where both times we scored we allowed them to score. If we don't do that, it allows a possible turn of momentum."
No offense meant to Lowe, Varitek said, since the sinkerballer submitted a quality start without his best stuff.
"In a one-run game," Lowe said, "when you give your team a chance in the eighth or ninth innings, a lot of times they'll come through."
But the Sox may have irreparably harmed themselves by falling short so often in the early innings. They repeatedly struggled to sustain rallies, as they did in the fourth inning after Varitek tripled and scored on Kevin Millar's single. Moments later, third base coach Dale Sveum waved home Doug Mientkiewicz from first on Bill Mueller's two-out double to the left-field corner, and Carlos Guillen's two-hop relay to the plate easily beat Mientkiewicz for the final out. Left fielder Rondell White briefly bobbled the ball, contributing to Sveum's decision to send Mientkiewicz.
"When White bobbled the ball, that was it for me, I'm sending him, too," Francona said. "It was a perfect relay and that's what it took. I would have sent him all the way."
The play seemed to give the Tigers some momentum as they promptly struck for three runs in the bottom of the inning. Former Northeastern star Carlos Pena, who was batting .200 (2 for 10) with the bases loaded, provided the big hit, a bases-loaded, two-run single.
Varitek recouped a run with his shot off Detroit starter Mike Maroth leading off the sixth. And Kevin Youkilis forced the 3-3 tie by waging an eight-pitch at-bat against Roberto Novoa to draw a two-out, bases-loaded walk.
The Sox could no more, though, as Cabrera fanned on three pitches, swinging wildly at a ball wide of the plate for the third strike.
"When you come back like that and feel good that you're right back in the game, if you can put up a zero somehow some way, it gives us a chance to win," Francona said.
But the Tigers lurched ahead on the first three pitches from Lowe in the bottom of the sixth as Dmitri Young doubled and scored on Guillen's single for the decisive run.
Lowe agreed with Francona.
"If you put up a zero," he said, "who knows how this game could have gone."
Too bad for the Sox they never will. They went down in order over the final three innings against a trio of relievers, including Ugueth Urbina, who worked the ninth for his 18th save.
At that, the Sox were left to ponder their whopping deficit in the division race.
"You never stop trying to catch first place," Lowe said, "but I think when you're 10 1/2 games out with seven weeks to go, you're looking at probably having to play .800 baseball to catch them. It's not to say you can't do it, but it would be extremely tough."