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ORIOLES 9, RED SOX 3

Sox, Wakefield knuckle under

Orioles hit three homers in their rout

If Red Sox manager Terry Francona is tired today, we'll know what kept him up.

You can't say the decision to pull catcher Jason Varitek after six innings in last night's 9-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park cost the Sox a game, but it didn't look good when Kelly Shoppach, not Varitek, came up in the seventh with the Orioles up, 7-3, and the bases loaded.

Shoppach grounded out weakly to second base to end the inning, during which the Sox had scored three runs.

Didn't look good at all.

The thinking? Well, the Orioles were ahead, 7-0, against an ineffective Tim Wakefield, and there were certainly signs his team wasn't going to do much against Orioles starter Sidney Ponson. Why not save Varitek's legs for this afternoon's series finale? That appeared to be what Francona was thinking.

While not regretting it, Francona didn't look like a guy who felt too good about it.

''Yeah, believe me. I'm aware of the situation Shop came up in," said Francona. ''I guess that's the best thing I can say. I'm aware. I know. You try and do the best you can. These games for me are almost harder. In close games you know what you're going to do. I want him to catch tomorrow. I want him to catch a lot. I think if I said I regretted it, I'd be wrong. I don't do anything without thinking it through, but at the same time I'm aware of the situation he came up in."

The Sox had finally gotten to Ponson in the seventh when Kevin Millar, who was booed by the fans throughout (a fielding error and a 1-for-4 night at the plate), reached on an error by Miguel Tejada, who tried to backhand the grounder and made a poor throw to first.

After Bill Mueller walked, Mark Bellhorn singled to right to load the bases, Millar scored on Johnny Damon's sacrifice fly to left.

After Edgar Renteria flied out, David Ortiz drew a walk to reload the bases. That brought up Manny Ramirez, who singled up the middle, scoring a pair of runs. The Sox had runners at first and second when Ponson was replaced by lefthander Steve Kline.

Francona countered by pinch hitting the righthanded Jay Payton for Trot Nixon. Payton drew a walk, prompting another pitching change, with righthander Todd Williams coming on to face Shoppach. The rookie tapped out to Chris Gomez.

''You can't play a second-guess game," Varitek said. ''We weren't playing a good game. We're still down four and he's [Shoppach] in the game. No sense making a story out of something that's not a story."

Damon agreed: ''We're going to stick together on that one. You'd always like Jason in there but it's 162 games and the decision was made to take him out."

It wasn't Francona who got to Wakefield.

Wakefield always has some turbulence to overcome with his knuckleball, but normally the good times outnumber the bad.

Lately that hasn't been the case.

The rocky times have lasted a little too long for Wakefield's liking.

In losing his fourth straight, he surrendered three home runs, including back-to-back shots by Tejada (three doubles and a homer) and Sammy Sosa in the third inning, while catcher Geronimo Gil started the barrage with a three-run homer in the second.

The Orioles' first six hits went for extra bases.

On a crisp spring night, Wakefield (4-5, 5.03 ERA) allowed nine hits and seven runs in 5 2/3 innings.

The Sox had to bridge the gap to the middle relievers with starter Bronson Arroyo, whose day it was to throw on the side. Arroyo wound up throwing 1 1/3 scoreless innings.

Wakefield last won May 9 vs. Oakland in a 13-5 Sox win, when he pitched six innings and allowed seven hits and three runs. After winning his first two starts, Wakefield lost one, then won two more before hitting his four-game rut.

In his last four starts, Wakefield's ERA has risen from 3.18 to 5.03. It's easy to see why. In 22 2/3 innings, he's allowed 32 hits and 22 earned runs for an 8.74 ERA.

A good indication of how little confidence Wakefield had in his knuckler came when he threw three straight fastballs in striking out Gil in the sixth.

''He was disgustingly nasty in the bullpen," Varitek said.

But that's where Wakefield left it.

''Tonight I didn't have squat," Wakefield said. ''It's a night I'd like to have back. I was searching the whole time, trying to figure out what was going on. I just couldn't figure it out."

Said Francona: ''I think the biggest thing is we got down. I think sometimes you have the tendency of trying too much. Trying to hit a five-run homer. I think it is human nature. I think that got us for a couple of innings tonight."

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