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BOB RYAN

An armful of problems in debacle

On that proverbial scale of one to 10, this one was about a 9.4 on the Ugly-O-Meter. That's speaking from a hometown point of view. The Orange County American League Club Inc., the outfit that happened to provide yesterday's opposition, probably thought it was a baseball masterpiece worthy of hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts.

If you are the skipper of the Boston Red Sox, 11 enemy runs in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings does not a happy afternoon make. There is nothing pleasant about seeing a 5-1 lead transform itself into a 13-6 setback.

But what do you want the man to say? After all, Yogi Berra summed up the reality of baseball managing some three decades ago. ''If you ain't got a bullpen," said No. 8, ''you ain't got nuthin.' "

And that's what the pen gave Terry Francona yesterday -- nuthin'. Nada. Zilch. Bronson Arroyo handed over a 5-2 lead, the result of six decent innings, representing a significant reversal from his three previous starts (15 2/3 IP, 22 hits, 13 earned runs). You wouldn't go so far as to call it an idyllic situation, but it was pretty darn good.

And then?

''I guess if I said that was certainly not how we drew it up, it would be the understatement of the year," said Francona. ''You give up 11 runs in the last three innings, that doesn't bode well for your chances of winning. Saying that, these guys will come back and pitch well for us. I firmly believe that. I think it will prove itself out."

They weren't all bad yesterday. Underhanding/sidewinding lefthander Mike Myers did his job, as he has for most of the season. But the rest were awful. Keith Foulke, the major whipping boy of the first eight weeks, was not called upon. We can't hang this one on him.

Needing nine outs to hold a three-run lead, Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, Myers, Matt Mantei, and John Halama wound up facing 24 batters. They needed an amazing 93 pitches to get those nine precious outs, and by the time Halama fanned Dallas McPherson to end the top of the ninth, 11 runs had scored.

Truth be told, this debacle wasn't all the fault of the pitchers. Throughout the game, Red Sox fielders did not come up with plays that could have made a difference. Not one fielding error was charged to the Sox by official scorer Joe Giuliotti, and you couldn't fault him on any instance, either. Between the base hit/error and wild pitch/passed ball decisions that kept cropping up, this was a nightmarish game to score. It was nightmarish in another way, too. This monstrosity took 3 hours 51 minutes to play, or one minute longer than it took the Braves and Dodgers to play their 26-inning tie at Braves Field a while back. But we're all in agreement that a few things have changed in baseball over the past 85 years.

Now, as bad as this was, at least one thing happened that might have positive ramifications. Somewhat buried in the late-inning rubble was perhaps the most impressive Red Sox individual batting performance of the season. Kevin Millar came within a foot or so of hitting three home runs.

The struggling first baseman, who came into the game with a higher on-base percentage than slugging percentage (not exactly what you're looking for from your No. 6 man), hit a 3-and-0 pitch from Bartolo Colon very high off the Wall in the second for a double. He hit a first-pitch home run into the Monster seats off Colon in the fifth (giving Arroyo that 5-1 lead). And he hit yet another first-pitch homer, off Scot Shields, to lead off the Sox eighth, and bring them within a run at 7-6.

Millar truly got all of that one, sending the ball over the works in left. It was a Glausian wallop.

''I think he's been OK," said Francona, ''although I guess I'm in the minority. But he swung the bat very well today. The ball came off the bat with authority."

In fact, Millar not only hit the ball with authority, but over it, since his smash disappeared over the Sports Authority sign.

At last, Millar's slugging percentage (.368) exceeds his on-base percentage (.335).

''I'm just obviously making adjustments," he said. ''It's a long season. I'm obviously not pleased with the way the first two months went in a personal sense. But I'm not giving up, and I never will. We've got a long four months to go."

The fact that the two home runs were hit off first pitches was hardly coincidental. ''I'm trying to be more aggressive from 0 and 0," he said. ''I was taking too many pitches, trying to set things up, or something."

Having Millar reestablish himself as a legitimate threat will help, but it's clear that offense is not really the essential problem with this team. The overall pitching numbers, compared with a year ago, are starting to get a bit scary. I once again remind you of Yogi's Law.

There isn't much the hitters can say to help their faltering bullpen mates, although Johnny Damon gave it the old college try.

''We thought things were set up today, but all of a sudden bad things began to happen," Damon said. ''We need to keep having decent at-bats. We need to keep scoring to help those relievers so they don't have to be as perfect as they're trying to be."

Now if that isn't being a mensch, I don't know what is. Here's Johnny kind of apologizing because the offense didn't give the pitchers 10 or 11 runs to work with.

So what is Francona supposed to do? He doesn't handle personnel, and this is the hand he's been dealt.

''For guys who are going bad," he said, ''and this is for the entire team, we have 25 guys down there and that's how we are going to win or lose. Like I said earlier, the same guys who struggle today are the same guys who are going to come back and help us win ballgames."

OK. Sounds good. But it would be a whole lot more relaxing if Wade Miller would step up and throw a three-hit shutout today.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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