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MARINERS 2, RED SOX 0

Running into trouble

Ramirez gaffe, shutout by Meche push Red Sox off course in trip finale

SEATTLE -- Something was wrong, and it troubled Jason Varitek.

No, it wasn't Manny Ramirez's base-running blunder that cost Varitek an RBI and the Red Sox their best chance to score against one of their toughest opposing pitchers of the season.

It was Varitek's own pitcher, Derek Lowe. By the time Varitek finished warming up Lowe in the bullpen before yesterday's game, the catcher wondered how the Sox would survive against Ichiro, the Hit Machine, and his free-swinging Mariners.

"It was awful," Lowe said of his tuneup. "Jason gave [bullpen catcher] Dana [Levangie] a couple of looks like, `What are we going to have to work with?' "

In one of the wonders of baseball, Lowe went from ragged in the pen to rugged on the mound as he submitted one of his finest performances of the season and gave the Sox a sweet opportunity to dump the Mariners and soar home from their seven-game western swing on wings of joy.

But Ramirez's gaffe and an outstanding effort by Seattle starter Gil Meche allowed Raul Ibanez to make all the difference by slugging Lowe's only bad pitch of the game for a two-run homer as the Mariners stung the Sox, 2-0, before 43,742 at Safeco Field.

The defeat dropped the Sox 3 1/2 games behind the division-leading Yankees and cost them a game in the wild-card standings as the Angels climbed back within five. Though the Sox went 5-2 on their seven-game swing through Oakland and Seattle, they fell one game off the pace in the American League East while gaining 1 1/2 games in the wild-card race.

"I just don't think we can be discouraged right now," manager Terry Francona said as the Sox prepared to play their final 20 games, including six against the Yankees, their rivals in the AL East. "We're doing too many good things."

Good things like pitching well. A day after Bronson Arroyo and the bullpen combined to shut out the Mariners, Lowe surrendered only two runs on five hits and a walk over seven innings as he improved his ERA to 4.91, his lowest since May 14 and a far cry from the 6.84 ERA that burdened him July 4.

No one was more pleasantly surprised by Lowe's latest act of redemption than Varitek. Lowe allowed only four balls out of the infield: two ground-ball singles, a routine fly out, and Ibanez's difference-maker.

"I know he wasn't feeling his best when he left that bullpen," Varitek said. "He really had to grind it out, and it was an excellent job, a really gutty performance."

It might not have gone to waste had Ramirez reacted differently when Varitek lined to Ichiro in right field with one out in the first inning. Johnny Damon had beaten out a grounder to third leading off and scrambled to third when Ramirez capped an admirable, 10-pitch at-bat against Meche by rifling a double to the right-field corner.

But as Varitek's line drive bore down on Ichiro, Ramirez broke for third without watching whether the ball would be caught. He kept running even though third base coach Dale Sveum previously signaled to him there was only one out. And he kept running even as Damon returned to third and prepared to tag.

"I was just trying to get a good jump right there, trying to score," Ramirez said. "But I got doubled up."

Sveum, who spoke to Ramirez after the play, was uncertain exactly what prompted Ramirez to run.

"I don't know if he forgot the outs or just thought it was a lower line drive that was going to fall in," Sveum said.

Ramirez, asked if he thought the ball was going to drop, said, "Not really, I was just trying to get a good jump."

And when he was asked if he forgot there was only one out, Ramirez said, "No, I was just trying to get a good jump."

In any case, Ramirez was doubled up at second to spoil a prime scoring opportunity. But the MVP candidate suggested it was best to forget the episode. Yes, Ramirez sometimes makes mistakes in the field and on the bases, but he has ranked with David Ortiz as the biggest difference-makers this year in the Sox' lineup amid their magical run toward the postseason.

"We're going to turn the page," Ramirez said. "We're going to move on."

Varitek agreed.

"He made a mistake, but he's done a lot more good for this team," Varitek said. "I'm not going to bury the guy for it."

Nor did Francona care to pile on.

"It was a costly mistake, but it happens," the manager said. "He knows. You go on."

The problem was, the Sox went nowhere after the blunder as Meche pitched a shutout, marking the first time the Mariners blanked Boston since Chris Bosio's no-hitter April 22, 1993. Meche surrendered five hits, only three after Ramirez was doubled up. He walked one and struck out four.

The Sox moved runners into scoring position twice more, when Trot Nixon doubled leading off the fifth and when Damon walked leading off the sixth and dashed to third on Orlando Cabrera's hit-and-run single to left. But the Sox wasted both chances as Meche retired the next three batters in order without a runner advancing.

"With Meche, it seems like this year he puts together a good start and follows it up with a bad one," Damon said. "We just happened to catch him on a good one. He did a great job."

As did Lowe, whose lone mistake was a hanging slider that Ibanez lost over the wall in left-center in the sixth after Edgar Martinez grounded a two-out single up the middle.

"If you can go seven innings and give up two runs, you're going to win a heck of a lot more games than you lose," Lowe said. "It was just one of those games where it's not necessarily our bad doing. Sometimes you have to give the other team credit."

The game marked the latest installment of Lowe's fine turnaround after a dreadful first half. The loss was only his second in his last 11 starts.

"I feel like I've been giving the team a chance every time out," he said.

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