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ON BASEBALL

Just a close call for closer

No need to check with your primary care provider about the origin of that nervous tic you woke up with this morning, on the first full day of autumn. Ninth-inning home runs allowed in three consecutive games by Sox closer Keith Foulke, who also was tagged with blown saves in each of the last two games, were enough to leave even the "Keep The Faith" billboard drenched in sweat last night in Fenway Park.

It was no small comfort that Rafael Palmeiro's ninth-inning, game-tying pinch home run off Foulke last night became just a footnote when Orlando Cabrera, fresh off the Bogota-to-Boston shuttle, made his first Fenway home run a game-winner in the 12th. And the Sox players, along with highly amused owner John W. Henry, were far too preoccupied with watching the fresh new talent on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" -- clubhouse man Edward "Pookie" Jackson and ballgirl Kelly Barons -- dissect their latest walkoff win, a 7-6 escape over the Orioles, to dwell on Foulke's travails.

"They're all transfixed by Pookie," said Henry, face aglow with the sheer fun of the moment. "What a scene, to see every player standing around the TV's after the game."

Nonetheless, check all the Sox closers since 1990 -- B.K. Kim, Ugie Urbina, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, Tom Gordon, Heathcliff Slocumb, Ken Ryan, Rick Aguilera, Jeff Reardon -- and you won't find one who gave up home runs in three successive games. You have to go back 15 years and Lee Smith, who did it in successive games against the A's and Blue Jays twice in 1989, to find the last Sox closer who was taken out of the yard in three straight appearances.

Until this week, it had never happened to Foulke as a closer, and had happened to him just once since he broke into the majors in 1997 -- with the White Sox in 1999, when he was still a setup man.

A confidence-builder this is not, not on the eve of October. Foulke gave up a home run to the Orioles' leading hitter, Melvin Mora, in the ninth inning of Monday's 10-6 loss in a nonsave situation. Tuesday night, it was Javy Lopez, hitting a two-run home run that sprayed graffiti all over Curt Schilling's 2004 masterpiece, eight innings of 14-strikeout, shutout ball. Last night, it was Hall-of-Famer to be Palmeiro, who turns 40 tomorrow and is nursing a sore hamstring, who tomahawked a high Foulke fastball with a full count to tie the score at 6.

For several long moments, Foulke stood in front of the mound, hands on his hips, until plate umpire Tim Welke stuck a new ball in his glove.

Foulke, who was replaced at the start of the 10th by Ramiro Mendoza, was not visible in the scrum of happy Sox players watching the Pookie and Kelly show. But Curtis Leskanic, the eighth Sox pitcher of the night and the winner after Doug Mientkiewicz started a bases-loaded double play to end the 12th, assured one and all that Foulke would not be traumatized by recent events.

"He's unbelievable," said Leskanic, a one-time closer who called last night's win his best moment in a Sox uniform. "He'll be back out there tomorrow. He's tough. He's really, really tough. He'll let it run right off the bill of his cap."

Another ex-closer, Mike Timlin, was asked if he felt it necessary to offer any counsel to Foulke.

"What do you say to the guy?" said Timlin, who worked a scoreless eighth in a game that started with Bronson Arroyo and went through just about every available body in the Sox pen with the exception of Kim. "It's going to happen to everybody. I don't care who you are."

So, are you worried, pitching coach Dave Wallace?

"No," said Wallace, a straight shooter. "Seriously. He made a mistake in two one-run games. I thought he threw well tonight.

"Look at the guys who have gotten the home runs. Guys like Palmeiro and Javy Lopez and Miggy Tejada and Manny Ramirez, no matter what you do against guys like that, they're going to get their hits."

Leskanic appeared to be on the verge of suffering a worse fate than Foulke's when Mora opened the 12th with a line single to center and Tejada hit a roller that hit the third-base bag for an infield hit.

"At first I said, `Oh, no, here we go again,' " Leskanic said. "But then I said, `No, it's not here we go again.' I figured there would be a bunt for one out [B.J. Surhoff sacrificed], and we'd walk a guy [Javy Lopez, intentionally]. I kind of played the inning out. I wasn't counting on a double play, but I was willing a ground ball."

And that he got against Jay Gibbons, with Mientkiewicz swooping in, firing a strike to the plate to Varitek, whose return throw to first base was taut and true to Reese, who had scrambled over to cover. "If either Mientkiewicz or Varitek lollipop their throws, we don't get the double play," Leskanic said.

"And how about Pokey being there on that play?" Wallace marveled. "What a play."

For a night, anyway, the Sox put aside Foulke's troubles. Let the fans have the sleepless nights.

"That's what teammates do," Leskanic said. "They pick each other up." 

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