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ON BASEBALL

These Birds are a peck of trouble

Suddenly, the Lost Weekend in the Bronx doesn't matter so much. Suddenly, the upcoming showdown with the Yankees seems a month away. All it took was one unsightly 9-6 loss to these baffling Baltimoreans last night and reality smacked the Red Sox upside the head.

"We're still a good team," insisted center fielder Johnny Damon, after he and his mates had gone down for the sixth time in 11 games. "We know that."

But if they don't take care of business, if they don't start bottom-feeding the way they should, the Sox are going to be sweating out the wild card again. Forget the divisional title, if you're still even thinking about it.

You can stick a million pins in your A-Rod voodoo doll, you can burn George III in effigy, you can eat a tub of Reverse the Curse ice cream for all three meals. But the reason the Sox are spinning their wheels in second place is that they haven't beaten Baltimore and the Yankees have.

"Everyone's got a team that plays them tough that probably shouldn't play them tough," said catcher Doug Mirabelli. "This is our team."

The Orioles are 8-4 against Boston and 5-14 against New York. Even worse, they're 5-1 at Fenway. How can such things be?

"I don't know," conceded Oriole manager Lee Mazzilli, who spent the last four years in a Yankee uniform. "Whatever it is, I don't want to change it."

This is not a one-year aberration, either. Since 1999, Baltimore is 14-32 against the Sox down there, 28-19 up here. In fact, the Town Team hasn't swept a series from the Orioles in the Fens since 1995.

All of this would be little more than Fun Facts fodder if the season didn't depend on beating these people.

The schedule tells the tale: 13 games left, seven against Baltimore, three against New York. So whom should the Fenway faithful be obsessing about?

The Athens-vs.-Sparta dramatics may be compelling and cathartic, but the record shows that the season rarely turns on them.

Over the last four years, the Boston-New York series has been decided by one game three times. Only once did the Sox finish closer than six games behind.

So it is again this summer. The ledger with the Yankees, even after the Lost Weekend, reads 9-7 for the Sox. The reason they are 4 1/2 games out, simply, is The Birds.

The Orioles may be buried in third place, two dozen games out, but they're nasty house guests, winners of 11 of their last 14 on the road.

And the Sox, who left Oakland on a September high two weeks ago, are playing dismally now, giving up 34 runs over the last three games.

Once the Orioles hung up a 5-spot in the fourth inning courtesy of B.J. Surhoff's grand slam off Tim Wakefield and added three more in the fifth, nobody was talking about Noo Yawk. Some unfriendly winged visitors were building a foul nest in the middle of the Fenway diamond again. And the Sox rotation, which was being billed as baseball's best, is looking wobbly.

First, it was Derek Lowe imploding. Then it was Pedro Martinez serving up skyrockets at the Stadium.

Now it's Wakefield, whose knuckler has gone haywire.

"I have no answers," shrugged the bewildered Wakefield, who has three losses in his last four starts after winning six of seven. "I really don't."

Was it a week ago when the conversation was about five Boston starters with double-digit victories, when the debate was about who would be left out of the playoff rotation?

Now, it's simply about getting to October. Manager Terry Francona doesn't even want to think about the playoffs now. "It's like sacking the bats up before the game's over," he said.

Where the Red Sox find themselves now is in a weird sort of limbo: almost too far behind to catch the Yankees, almost too far ahead of the Angels to blow the wild card.

Which, given the local hysteria/paranoia about anything pinstriped, may not be the worst place to be this week. If Boston had ever swept New York down there and closed within half a game of the lead, everybody would have forgotten about the matter at hand. Beating the Birds.

That's where the season is for the next three nights here and that's where it will end, with four games in three days at Camden Yards. Once again, it won't be about the Yankees.

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