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ORIOLES 9, RED SOX 1

Sox don't enjoy early plot twist

It's no mystery: 3d inning helps to do them in

BALTIMORE -- It could have been different, the Red Sox said. It could have been them. Left lamenting Luis Matos's reach after a sloppy game in Baltimore yesterday, the Sox kept repeating their could-have mantra. What would have been a David Ortiz home run could have eluded Matos's glove. Rafael Palmeiro's just-over-the-scoreboard shot could have stayed in the park. It could have been a six-run swing in their direction.

It wasn't.

Despite the ease of blaming the loss on those two third-inning swings, the Red Sox' poor pitching -- including another problematic early inning from starter Wade Miller and a blowup from the bullpen -- and futility at the plate were the true issues in their 9-1 loss to the Orioles yesterday. Boston could do nothing with the Baltimore starter (Bruce Chen) and Baltimore could do everything to Boston's

Miller, who was seeking his first win since May 30, couldn't get out of the opening inning without surrendering a run. Again. Miller has allowed 15 runs (14 earned) in the 12 first innings he has pitched this season. Three of them came in his last start, Monday at Texas. Yesterday's appearance was slightly more effective, but not much.

''I made some good pitches that they hit and that was it," Miller said. ''I've got no excuses for giving up a first-inning run right there. I realize it's happened in the past, but I don't have any excuses for it this time."

But, in the end, there were two major problems for the Red Sox that didn't come from inside their dugout yesterday at Camden Yards -- Palmeiro and Matos.

First baseman Palmeiro collected hits No. 2,996 and 2,997 on his way to a six-RBI day, including the three-run homer to right in the third. Center fielder Matos swiped a would-be homer from Ortiz in the Boston third, extending most of his arm over the wall and snatching a blast off the bat of the designated hitter.

It would have put the Red Sox ahead, 4-1. Instead, at the end of the inning, it was Baltimore up by that score.

''I know the score ends up being lopsided, but it's amazing, with a couple swings of the bat . . .," manager Terry Francona said. ''David Ortiz hits one pitch and they bring it back into the field. You take three off the board. Next inning, Raffy hits a three-run homer, it's a six-run swing. That's a big, big part of the ballgame."

It was a big part, but not the only part.

The Sox were still just three runs down when the swing occurred. They weren't exactly out of the game. But they couldn't cross the plate against a suddenly effective Chen. The lefthander, who had allowed 20 hits and 12 runs in his last three starts spanning 11 innings, gave up little more than the one run in the third on a Trot Nixon double down the line, a Johnny Damon infield hit, and an Edgar Renteria single to left. Other than in that inning, not a single Red Sox made it past first base.

''He threw the ball well, kept the ball off the plate when he needed it, and changed speeds," said Kevin Millar.

The Red Sox managed just five hits off the Orioles starter, who before the game had a 1-1 record and 5.84 ERA against them this season. They weren't hitting much. But, still, they entered the seventh with that three-run deficit.

And then came the relievers.

With Miller's early trouble and high pitch count (108), Francona was left to trot out John Halama and Scott Cassidy -- and the game spun rapidly out of control as they gave up seven hits and five runs over 1 1/3 innings.

That might make the manager long for Curt Schilling or Keith Foulke, even in their present conditions.

Francona sent Halama into the game in the seventh, and while getting just two outs, he allowed three hits and two runs. Cassidy then gave up three runs and four hits in his Red Sox debut. It wasn't pretty.

Unlike, of course, that over-the-wall grab by Matos.

''It was a game-saver," Francona said. ''That's a big three runs. Three-run homers, as we found out, make big swings in the game."

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