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DEVIL RAYS 3, RED SOX 1

Red Sox come apart at seams

Three hits can't get the job done vs. Devil Rays

There is little joy in Red Sox Nation this morning.

It's bad enough the team's 25-day stay atop the American League East came to an end with a listless 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays last night at Fenway Park in which they were handcuffed by lefthander Scott Kazmir.

Johnny Damon's 29-game hitting streak also came to an end, with the rock star/outfielder going 0 for 5 and making the game's last out.

And the team is left with a makeshift roster as starting second baseman Mark Bellhorn was placed on the disabled list, leaving Alex Cora to fill Bellhorn's role and no real backup middle infielder (unless you count Kevin Youkilis, who was recalled from Pawtucket).

That Cora was the top Sox hitter, contributing two of the team's meager three hits, was little consolation. The middle infield situation, along with the lack of a righthanded-hitting outfielder (with Jay Payton gone) and the uncertain status of the pitching staff gave general manager Theo Epstein plenty to talk about with manager Terry Francona after the game.

''Some nights we're getting great pitching and we're not hitting, and some nights we're getting great hitting and not the pitching," lamented Damon. Yet Damon seemed unconcerned that the Sox' fall might last.

''If this were later in the season, I'd be concerned," said Damon. ''We didn't catch fire until this time last season. We just have to be better in all phases of the game. Kazmir just had good stuff tonight. It seems like everyone makes fun of the Devil Rays, but they show up to play every time with everything they've got."

No one in the clubhouse seemed particularly concerned about the team slipping behind the Yankees, 11-10 winners at Texas, in the standings. Boston is tied with Baltimore for second, a half-game behind New York.

''I could care less," said Trot Nixon. ''We have two months of baseball left. Are we going to get a prize if we're in first place tomorrow?"

After losing three of four to New York, the Sox figured they'd have a chance to get back on track against the lowly Devil Rays. It didn't work out that way.

Kazmir and the Devil Rays bullpen limited the Sox to three hits, and did just enough against Wade Miller to send the Sox to their ninth loss in the last 13 games at Fenway. The big hit was a two-run single by Joey Gathright in the sixth that ended Miller's night.

Miller pitched well enough to win, though his pitch count was at 106 by the time he exited.

Pretty much the only excitement came in the top of the ninth, when an overturned call cost the Devil Rays a run and sparked an animated argument from Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella, who was ejected.

With two outs, Jorge Cantu hit a slow roller to first baseman John Olerud, who flipped to Curt Schilling covering. First base umpire Dana DeMuth initially called Cantu safe, with Carl Crawford apparently scoring from third, but after Schilling and Francona argued long and hard, DeMuth conferred with plate umpire Laz Diaz, and the call reversed, ending the inning.

Tampa second baseman Julio Lugo took a sarcastic jab at Schilling. ''I used to admire Curt Schilling, but I've got more admiration for him now that he would come out and beg for a call and get it," he said. ''I don't think there's anybody in baseball who could do that. I admire Curt Schilling. He's the man for me. I had respect for him, now I have more respect for him than anybody in baseball. I've never seen anything like that."

The excitement didn't carry over to the bottom of the ninth, as the Sox went down 1-2-3 to closer Danys Baez.

Kazmir, now 4-7 with a 4.33 ERA, escaped a load of trouble in the first inning, which as it turned out, is when the game slipped away. Boston loaded the bases twice in the inning on three walks, a single, and an error, but scored just one run, on a Manny Ramirez double play. Trot Nixon struck out swinging against the tough lefty to strand three runners.

''If we could have done more in that first inning, who knows what might have happened?" Damon said.

The Devil Rays tied it in the second when Damon Hollins tripled over Damon's head to the triangle in center. He scored two batters later on Toby Hall's sacrifice fly.

And from there Kazmir (7 strikeouts, 6 walks in 6 innings) outdueled Miller. The Devil Rays' bullpen pitched in with three scoreless innings.

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