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ORIOLES 9, RED SOX 7

Birds of prey

Orioles inflict damage as Sox turn their attention to the division chase

Maybe now's the time for Papa Jack to break out his signature T-shirts, emblazoned with his rally cry: "Somebody gotta pay."

With the Yankees newly encamped in town for a three-game showdown with the division title still up for grabs, the Sox could do worse than heed hitting coach Ron Jackson's call for retribution after they absorbed a serious body blow in a 9-7 loss to the killer Birds before 35,026 in the Fens.

Either the division-leading Yankees pay for the sins of the Orioles by dropping the weekend series in the Hub or the Sox may need a whole lot of help from the baseball gods in their last-ditch quest for supremacy in the American League East. The Sox went to bed last night trailing the Yankees (who topped Tampa Bay, 7-3) by 4 1/2 games with only 10 to play.

With Derek Lowe unable to rise to the moment, the Sox are left to count on Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, and Curt Schilling to reverse their fortunes after the Yankees took two of three last weekend in the Bronx. The division winner will enjoy home-field advantage in the playoffs.

"We would like payback, and if we could get payback, that means the AL East is back in our favor," Johnny Damon said. "That means flying all the way across the country for your first round of the playoffs. That's what payback would be."

The Orioles made the Sox pay last night when pinch hitter Jose Leon broke a 5-5 tie by lacing a decisive two-run single off Mike Myers with the bases loaded in the eighth inning. One run was charged to Ramiro Mendoza, who allowed two hits before he yielded to Myers with one out and the game on the line.

Lowe made things difficult by lasting only five innings, causing manager Terry Francona to stick with Myers longer than he normally would as he tried to help his key relievers recover from their roles in the 12-inning, 7-6 victory the night before. With the bullpen depleted, Francona also summoned Byung Hyun Kim to pitch the ninth with the Sox trailing, 7-5. Kim retired the first two batters before allowing two runs, leaving the Sox short despite a two-run, last-gasp rally in the bottom of the ninth.

"I was trying to protect some people tonight," Francona said. "If there is blame, I will take it because it didn't work."

The Sox dropped to 6-9 against the Orioles, who have hurt Boston's bid for the division title more than any other opponent. Good thing Francona's crew remained six games up on the idle Angels (and surging Rangers) in the wild-card race, especially since Boston ends the season with four games in Baltimore.

"It's a really hard team for us to play," Lowe said. "They just put together really good at-bats and they pitch well. For an unknown reason, they play us well."

Lowe was trying to bounce back from his abomination last Saturday in the Bronx in which he turned in his shortest start in seven years, surrendering seven runs (six earned) before he retired a batter in the second inning. The sinkerballer fared better last night, though he let the Orioles seize the lead three times and was fortunate to escape with a no-decision after the Sox scored three runs in the fifth to erase a 5-2 deficit before he departed.

Lowe was hurt most by Miguel Tejada's three-run homer in the fifth. The homer was Tejada's 30th and increased his league-leading RBI total to 134, surpassing his previous best of 131 in his MVP season with Oakland in 2002.

"I don't think Derek was quite as bad as the results," catcher Jason Varitek said. "It really came down to one pitch and one hit. There's a reason Tejada has a hundred zillion RBIs. He hit a pretty decent pitch."

Still, the Sox hoped for better from Lowe than a five-inning start on the eve of the pivotal series against the Yankees, especially since their pen was taxed. Lowe left Francona little choice but to lift him after 99 pitches.

"When you are around 100 after five [innings], it's obvious that they are making you work pretty hard," Francona said. "So when you get a big blow like [Tejada's], you kind of have to get him out of there. We've been going to our pen a lot."

Tejada's shot gained him some retribution since no one in the Oakland dugout last year was more riled by Lowe's celebratory gesture after he clinched the Division Series. Tejada left Lowe to reflect on the homer last night after an outing in which he surrendered nine hits and a walk for five runs (four earned) to remain at 14-12.

"To have to come out after the fifth inning, especially with what happened [Wednesday] night and the amount of [relievers] we had to use, that kind of put us behind the eight ball," Lowe said.

Despite Lowe's woes, the Sox managed to stay abreast of the Birds by chipping away at starter Daniel Cabrera (12-7), a Double A call-up who leads major league rookies in wins and was unbeaten with a 2.11 ERA over his previous four starts. Cabrera allowed five runs on seven hits, including a big two-run single by Kevin Millar, and three walks over 4 2/3 innings.

Terry Adams kept the Sox in contention by pitching two scoreless innings before Mendoza and Myers ran into trouble in the eighth and Kim struggled in the ninth. By the time the Sox prepared to bat in the ninth, they heard little but a chorus of boos, hardly the sound they wanted as they prepared to face the Yankees.

But soon the crowd was fully engaged as Bill Mueller and pinch hitter Ellis Burks delivered consecutive singles before Orlando Cabrera added a two-out single to load the bases. Manny Ramirez capitalized with a two-run single but the game ended when David Ortiz flied deep to right.

"I took a good swing and I didn't get what I wanted," Ortiz said. "I'll get it tomorrow."

The Sox get the Yankees tonight. And they plan to approach the series as if they could sweep it.

"It doesn't matter if we're one out or four out, it's going to be a big series regardless," Millar said. "It's easy to say the American League East is over with, but that's the easy way. This team doesn't do everything the easy way."

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