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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

It's late, and a Nation wonders

A man who believes in omens might be concerned now that the Red Sox have done something they last did in (gulp) 1978.

With yesterday's 12-3 beat-down at the hands of the Oakland Athletics, the Sox now have scored three runs or fewer in five consecutive games at Fenway Park. They haven't had this kind of a scoring drought at home since George Scott and friends buckled and choked after building an insurmountable lead against the Yankees.

It was a gruesome afternoon at the yard yesterday, made worse by the news that the region's infallible football team was also going down. By the time we heard ''Sweet Caroline" coming out of the Fenway loudspeakers, the sand was running out for the Patriots in not-so-sweet Carolina and the Sox had a lineup that included Adam Hyzdu, Alejandro Machado, Roberto Petagine, and Kelly Shoppach. For one of the first times all year, the stands were half empty. And quiet. You could hear infielders calling for popups in the second inning.

The only good news was that the Yankees also lost. This is how it's going to be throughout the Nation for these next 14 days. You will watch the Sox and check to see what the Yankees are doing. Just like in '78.

What is alarming in these parts is the state of the Sox bullpen, and the worn-down look of too many of the players in the everyday lineup. Trot Nixon isn't hitting. Watching Jason Varitek is like watching the final days of Artis Gilmore's NBA career. Johnny Damon's got more dents and scratches than my old '68 Mustang. Edgar Renteria? He got his second day off in five days yesterday. Some would call that being benched.

Starting pitching has enabled the Sox to thus far hold off the Yankee charge, but Matt Clement's performance can only be described as Burkett-esque. He was down, 2-0, after 11 pitches. After 18 pitches it was 3-0, and there were still no outs. The first five batters hit safely and the first four scored.

It was a 5-0 game with one on and one out in the second when manager Terry Francona went into Grady Little mode. At that point, Clement had faced 12 batters and 11 of them had hit the ball hard: The only exception was a walk to Nick Swisher. With Eric Chavez coming to the plate, it was pretty clear we had a combustible prescription: a 50-50 chance for a home run. Bingo. Chavez launched the first pitch over the bullpen to make it 7-0. Boos rained down on Francona when he finally came out to get his starter.

''You always want to give a guy a chance to pitch his way into it," explained the manager. ''But everything seemed flat. Much flatter than normal."

The latter line would describe Fenway for the remainder of the afternoon as Francona sent out a soft parade of gypsies, tramps, and thieves over the final seven frames. It was like St. Patrick's Day in Fort Myers without the green hats. We even got to see two innings of work from the world's most expensive mop-up man, Keith Foulke. Coming into a 12-0 game, the man who hates baseball worked two scoreless innings.

The Sox hardly seem primed for a big push in these final 13 games. They've scored only 37 runs in their last 11 games and we know that Francona has faith in only two relievers: Mike Timlin and Jonathan Papelbon.

But we also know that this group functions best when all seems lost. These Sox don't choke and it was pretty clear after the awful loss that they are not taking things too seriously. Yesterday was the annual ''haze the rookies" day and all of Boston's first-year players dressed in hideous women's clothing for the trip to Tampa. Lucky Craig Hansen. He'll probably get the call to the bigs today, but at least he won't have to wear a Hooter's outfit when he goes through airport security.

''Our season depends on what happens in the next two weeks," Damon said calmly as rookies around him were slipping into assorted Madonna cone-bras and negligees. ''We've worked all year and it's going to come down to the end. There is no breathing easy now. We're the defending champs. We expect to go out and win. We can't play deep into October if we don't play well now."

''We got pounded today, plain and simple," said captain Varitek. ''We just have to play our game and play hard and leave it all out on the field. We've had a taste of what it's like here and it's fun."

The '78 Sox were tight when things fell apart in September. Clubhouse tension was tangible and the manager had marbles in his hands and nasty newspaper clips in his desk drawer.

Not now. These guys are right out of a Farrelly Brothers movie. They're all about wedgies and rookies in drag, even after a 12-3 beating at home. Being idiotic has served them well and they expect it to work again over these final 14 days of the regular season.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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