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A'S 12, RED SOX 3

Drooping a bit, Sox beaten down by A's

Signs of attrition, along with plenty of Matt Clement sliders and cutters, hung in the September air yesterday.

Edgar Renteria (he's hitting .169 this month) was nowhere to be seen, asked to sit and rest by his manager for the second time in five days. The offense, one that leads Major League Baseball in average, hits, walks, on-base percentage, and runs, managed only three runs, and 10 runs total in this four-game series split with Oakland. The Sox, in fact scored three runs or fewer in four consecutive home games for the first time all season.

And Clement? The A's had him at hello. He recorded only four outs in his shortest start since Sept. 27, 2001, when he exited after being struck on the wrist by a Brian Jordan liner.

He left yesterday after 1 1/3 innings, the Sox behind, 7-0, which would become 12-0 on Jeremi Gonzalez's watch, before ending at 12-3. Clement, in his last three starts (vs. Los Angeles, at Toronto, vs. Oakland), is 0-3 with 20 hits and 16 runs allowed in 14 innings. That's a 10.29 ERA. He's allowed as many combined homers (2) and walks (5) in those games as he has registered strikeouts (7).

''I always want to give a guy a chance to pitch his way into it," said manager Terry Francona, who walked to the mound to relieve Clement amid boos in the top of the second. ''Everything seemed flat, much flatter than normal. There were a lot of balls hit [hard], even some of the outs."

The day's good news? Derek Jeter was punched out looking in Toronto with the tying run, Robinson Cano, on second base. That kept the Sox' 1 1/2-game lead intact, with 13 to play.

One reporter, among an usually large swarm near Jason Varitek, asked the captain if this was a bad way to enter the team's final regular-season trip (three games at Tampa Bay, three at Baltimore).

''We got pounded today, plain and simple," Varitek said.

The club, Varitek added, is not going to fall into a mind-set of ''Oh boy, we're starting a road trip today, we got pounded, the season is over. That's a crock of you know what. This team doesn't do that. We're not about to do that. We've got 13 games left. Thirteen games. Let's turn the corner."

Clement will have to wait five days to turn that personal corner, after a third consecutive unsettling showing.

Mark Ellis drove Clement's third pitch of the day over Manny Ramirez's head for a long single. Jason Kendall lined pitch No. 7 to left. Mark Kotsay roped pitch No. 12 down the line in right for a ground-rule double. Eric Chavez shot pitch No. 13 to right. Scott Hatteberg bounced pitch No. 18 just over a leaping John Olerud, and the rout was on.

Clement later was asked when he knew he didn't have his best stuff.

''Maybe after five hits in a row, there's a little bit of an indication," he said. ''I felt fine. I wasn't tender or sore or dragging. I just had some pitches that backed up over the plate, and you can't have pitches that back up to lefthanded hitters. It backs up right into the sweet spot of the bat. You saw what happened."

Clement, trailing, 4-0, after Oakland batted around in the first, allowed a double to lead off the second, a one-out single, then watched as a cut fastball backed up over the plate into the barrel of Chavez's capable bat. It landed just beyond the Red Sox bullpen.

''Usually, when he's throwing the ball well, he has really good zip on his cutter," Chavez said. ''When he's not, even some of his pitches that he misses with have got some good movement. It just looks like he was really flat. He just made some pitches over the plate that we could handle."

Varitek, though, believes that there is no common thread to Clement's last three starts indicating any kind of unraveling. He allowed three runs on five hits in a 3-0 loss to the Angels, six runs on six hits in a 6-3 setback to Toronto, and seven runs on eight hits yesterday.

''Today he struggled," Varitek said. ''The other day [in Toronto] we just made some bad pitches in some bad situations. We hung some sliders. But he kept us in that game. Today was probably the worst feel he's had.

''He's got two or three starts left. Those are the most important starts. Put those behind him, and let's go."

Is it fatigue?

''I don't think so," Francona said. ''He feels as good at this point in the season as he ever has in his career. He's told me that numerous times. I believe that."

Gonzalez followed Clement on a day on which the Sox also rolled out Keith Foulke, Lenny DiNardo, and Chad Harville.

Gonzalez lasted 2 2/3 innings, leaving after accounting for two lost balls in the fifth inning (a three-run Chavez shot deep over the Sox pen, and a two-run Monster blast to No. 9 hitter Marco Scutaro).

Soon -- the top of the sixth, to be exact -- the substitutes began flooding the field, giving some Sox a half a day off as the team played its 27th game in as many days. By the seventh inning, Roberto Petagine was in left field, Adam Hyzdu was in center, Kelly Shoppach was the DH, and Alejandro Machado was playing short.

Expect the lineup to be a little more predictable tonight. With Renteria back in there, for the last road trip of the season.

''I hope it's not our final trip," Francona said. ''That would be bad."

OK, the final regular-season trip.

''I think this team is ready to go," Varitek said.

Why?

''It's time," he said. ''It's our time."

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