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For Foulke, it's home and MRIs

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Keith Foulke's balky knees simply couldn't carry him anymore. And the Red Sox, despite clinging to their closer through five losses and four blown saves, couldn't carry him anymore either. At least not without some intervention by the medical staff. Not without a check on exactly how problematic those knees have become.

Just days after denying Foulke's knees were at fault, Red Sox manager Terry Francona convinced his closer to return to Boston today to undergo MRIs on both of them, effectively taking the decision away from the pitcher. Francona seemed concerned, uncertain as to how exactly his bullpen would survive and said ''there's a chance" Foulke would end up on the disabled list.

''We have had extensive talks with Foulkie," Francona said before last night's game in Texas. ''I've talked to medical people; I've talked to [GM] Theo [Epstein]; I've talked to Foulke. This is a tough one right now. We're having a tough time. He's battling the knee[s]. He feels responsible to pitch. He's not pitching with the effectiveness that certainly he wants or we need. So I kind of took it out of his hands a little bit. Going to send him back to Boston, have his knee[s] evaluated."

It's been a struggle all season for Foulke, the closer who blasted through the Angels', Yankees', and Cardinals' lineups during the run to the World Series title. During the 2004 postseason, Foulke ran up a 1-0 record with a 0.64 ERA in 14 innings. He allowed just a single earned run.

That's almost what he's been averaging this season. Per inning.

Having given up 27 earned runs in 39 innings in this post-championship campaign, it was obvious that something was amiss. It was obvious that Foulke had a problem.

Monday night's blown save and ninth inning-loss -- coming one week after Foulke gave up five earned runs in 1 2/3 innings to hand off another Wade Miller start -- left the closer with a 5-5 record, and an eye-popping 6.23 ERA.

It was time.

''He'll never turn the ball down, that's the kind of guy he is," Francona said. ''I don't care what people write, what people think, his comments. The facts are he'll take the ball every day and I think I need to step in and say, 'No, you won't. We're going to get you looked at.' And I think he's OK with that. I think he actually appreciated that."

Before yesterday's game, Foulke was little more than a flash of white T-shirt and blue jeans, strolling through the clubhouse and into Francona's office. Other than the brief sighting, Foulke did not make himself available for comment, though he remained in Texas last night before his scheduled trip back to Boston today.

The knee problems are not a new issue for the closer, despite Francona's denials. A June story in the Newark Star-Ledger reported that Foulke chose not to comply with a team suggestion that he have arthroscopic knee surgery. Back problems also have dogged the pitcher in the past.

Foulke repeatedly has denied a story that cropped up in late May that suggested the pitcher spent a day in Birmingham, Ala., at orthopedist James Andrews's American Sports Medicine Institute. The Institute uses cutting edge technology to analyze a pitcher's mechanics. He did admit to traveling to Alabama on the day the Red Sox played in the Hall of Fame exhibition in Cooperstown, N.Y.

But Foulke says he wasn't at the Institute. He says he was in Alabama for the barbecue. And, yesterday afternoon, Francona denied there were any problems with Foulke's arm, insisting his arm strength hasn't been an issue. It's the knees, he said. Though historically Foulke has had trouble with his left knee, Francona said the pitcher has potentially been favoring his right, leaving both in jeopardy.

Francona said he had no idea who would move into the closer's role during Foulke's absence. He mentioned Alan Embree and Mike Timlin, who worked the ninth last night and got his second save of the season, but stayed away from any absolutes. He also declined to comment on any trade possibilities.

The ever-bombastic David Wells offered a concrete solution to the closer question. As a ''SportsCenter" anchor blared out the question, ''Who takes over the role of closer?" on the clubhouse television, the lefty called out, ''Wells."

With Foulke on a potentially protracted timeout from the Red Sox, it's a question that the team will have to answer. The disabled list is, of course, a possibility, though Francona would not make any definitive assessments until after the results of today's MRIs.

They'll be anxiously awaited, especially with the words of catcher Jason Varitek still ominously hanging around the visitor's clubhouse in Arlington.

''There's no plainer thing to say than that the fact that we need him," Varitek said after Monday night's game. ''We ain't going anywhere without him. Period."

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