The opportunity was staring them right in the kisser. It was there for all to see -- a chance to gain a game on the Yankees and get a small measure of relief from their New York-instigated weekend hangover.
But instead of relief, all the Red Sox got last night was torment and frustration. They lost for the third straight time, falling, 9-6, to the Orioles, a team that beats them a lot more regularly than anyone else, including the Yankees. Boston remained 4 1/2 games astern of the Yankees, who lost at home to Toronto, but New York's magic number dropped to nine. Baltimore, meanwhile, improved to 8-4 against the Red Sox this season, including a head-scratching 5-1 at Fenway Park.
The Sox fell behind, 5-0 and 8-2, and never quite could get over the hump. Tim Wakefield was brutal, again. Wakefield hasn't won since Aug. 29 and his ERA is now 4.96, including 9.45 over his last four games. He has allowed 21 earned runs in his last 20 innings. Last night, he looked like Cy Young in the first three innings and then morphed into Steve Blass before Terry Francona mercifully yanked him in the fifth.
"I have no excuses," said Wakefield, who threw 102 pitches, 56 for strikes. "I felt confident in the first three innings and then the wheels fell off in the fourth and fifth. I wish I could have more answers for what happened, but I really don't know. I'm frustrated. I'm disappointed that I let us down. Very disappointed."
For his part, Francona said he still backed Wakefield ("I think Wake can get through it") and wouldn't touch a question as to whether Wakefield's struggles might influence the thinking on the postseason pitching rotation. Given that Boston has surrendered 34 runs in the last three games, Francona might have a lot more to consider than just Wakefield.
The three straight losses are the most since the Sox dropped four in a row from June 29-July 2. The team fell into recent (bad) form by falling behind early, which was the case in the two losses in New York. The Orioles broke a scoreless tie by putting down a 5-spot in the fourth, despite getting only two hits, the biggie a B.J. Surhoff laser with the bases loaded that landed in the Boston bullpen. Wakefield already had surrendered one run thanks in part to two walks and a hit batter.
"He's doing everything he can," catcher Doug Mirabelli said. "He's searching out there. Coming out of the bullpen, I thought we had good stuff. We did, for the first three innings."
The Sox made it 5-2 in the bottom of the fourth on a two-run blast by David Ortiz off Orioles starter Matt Riley. It was the 39th of the season for Ortiz. But Baltimore came back with three in the fifth, including one run that will make the All-Bizarre list of 2004.
The Orioles loaded the bases off Wakefield (a single and two walks, one intentional) and then scored a run on a Mirabelli passed ball. The other runners moved up. Rafael Palmeiro then walked to load the bases again. But Melvin Mora started to trot home, thinking that the bases already were loaded. He quickly snapped out of it and a rundown followed, with Mora doing a fair impression of the hare to the Sox' tortoises.
Boston made five throws to try to get Mora out. Bodies moved everywhere, with Mirabelli ending up at third. Kevin Millar, the first baseman, ended up at home, and center fielder Johnny Damon was backing up first base. The last throw from Mirabelli to Millar didn't connect -- Millar was charged with the error -- and Mora was able to score.
"We didn't deserve to get the out," Millar said. "It should be a one- or two-throw thing."
Was it too many throws? Mirabelli was asked.
"Not enough catches," he said.
Added Francona, "When you let the runner dictate the pace of the rundown, you're asking for problems."
A single by Javy Lopez added another run in the inning to chase Wakefield and make it 8-2. The bullpen then allowed only one hit until Mora went Lansdowne Street on Keith Foulke with two outs in the ninth, a huge homer in that it gave Baltimore a three-run cushion. Closer Jorge Julio recorded a 1-2-3 ninth for his 22d save.
Unlike the two losses in the Bronx, the Sox did manage to at least make this one interesting. They cut the deficit to 8-4 in the fifth on a bases-loaded ground-rule double by Manny Ramirez. That hit snapped an 0-for-14 skid for Ramirez. But Ortiz (pop to third) and Millar (grounder to third) were retired without further damage.
Boston's last two runs came in the sixth when, with the bases loaded and one out, Damon (two hits) ripped a single to right, driving in one run. The other run scored on a Mark Bellhorn fielder's choice.
Boston had the tying run come to the plate in the seventh and eighth innings, but the Orioles bullpen wiggled out of trouble each time. Mora's homer in the ninth, his 26th of the season, seemed to sap whatever energy remained, and the heart of the Sox order went quietly in the ninth.