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DEVIL RAYS 8, RED SOX 7

Red Sox lose game and ground

Lead in AL East is sliced to 1/2-game

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- David Wells, with 42 seasoned years of living under his sizable belt, sat in a clubhouse recliner yesterday afternoon, tenure evidently granting him the right to look at the 21-year-old kid, thin and quiet, and yap: ''Welcome to port. Scared? Nervous?"

But by night's end, Craig Hansen was the best thing the Red Sox had going for them, the 97-mile-per-hour fastball he displayed in a scoreless fifth inning a testament to youth and energy, two characteristics that the weary Sox seem to be lacking at the most vital time.

Wells, only slightly more effective than Matt Clement a day earlier, lasted a mere 2 2/3 innings, surrendering four runs on 10 hits in a crushing 8-7 loss to the Devil Rays last night. The issue? An inflamed right knee that is likely to be injected with cortisone between now and Wells's next start, Sunday at Baltimore.

Tony Graffanino, meanwhile, exited in the third inning, after straining his left groin. Trot Nixon fell ill before the game and needed two bags of IV fluid. Terry Francona promptly wiped Nixon's name off the white lineup card, which Francona said his right fielder ''looked the color of." That landed Adam Hyzdu in the starting lineup in Game No. 150 of the season.

Meanwhile, at Yankee Stadium, Bubba Crosby was taking Baltimore's Eric DuBose out of the yard for a 3-2 walkoff winner, pulling the Yankees (86-63) within a half-game of the Sox (87-63) in the AL East.

''That's how they do it," said David Ortiz, whose 44th homer of the season pulled the Sox within 8-7 with two outs in the ninth before Danys Baez fanned Manny Ramirez to end it.

The half-game margin represents the Sox' smallest lead on the Yankees since July 20, and New York could be atop the division by the end of the day today. The Yankees are 9-3 in their last 12, the Sox 5-7, all but erasing the four-game lead Boston held as recently as Sept. 8. Ortiz's sentiments?

''Might be a little upset," he said. ''It's not over yet. We might be playing bad, but we're not a bad team."

No, but they are a team worn by circumstance, no one more defeated by the way he's played and the way the game has treated him in recent weeks than Edgar Renteria. The picture of fatigue, the two-time Gold Glove winner committed his 29th error and fourth in a week. In fairness to the shortstop, the scenario that produced No. 29 (each error establishes a career high) was a situation made for failure. The infield was in, with the speediest of runners, Carl Crawford, on third base and the Sox behind, 7-6, in the eighth.

Crawford had singled, stolen second, then advanced on a Jorge Cantu ground out. With one out, Jonny Gomes hit a chopper that went under a charging Renteria, allowing what proved to be the winning run to score. If he fields the ball, does he make the play?

''That's why you're playing it, it's do or die," Francona said. ''I don't know."

Wells's early exit began a parade of pitchers -- Chad Harville in the fourth, Hansen in the fifth, Jonathan Papelbon in the sixth (he surrendered a two-run homer to Cantu to make it 7-4, Devil Rays), and later Chad Bradford and Mike Myers.

But the Sox rallied to begin the seventh. Hyzdu singled, Johnny Damon reached on a fielder's choice that erased Hyzdu, and Renteria singled sharply to left, sending Damon to second. That ended starter Mark Hendrickson's night after 6 1/3 innings.

Hendrickson, the lanky lefthander, gave way to lefty reliever Trever Miller. He threw all of one pitch -- and Ortiz crushed it, to the gap in right center, a shot that bounced to the wall. That scored Damon with ease and Renteria, too, pulling the Sox within 7-6.

Jesus Colome relieved Hendrickson to face Ramirez, who represented the go-ahead run. Ramirez took a wicked cut for strike two (97 m.p.h.), then looked at a pitch clocked at 98 for strike three. Colome, working steadily at 98, then walked Jason Varitek, his second walk of the night as he attempts to come out of a serious September slump (six hits in the month). But Kevin Millar popped up the first pitch he saw from Colome, stranding two runners.

One New York newspaper has assigned a reporter to cover the closing weeks of the Sox season, and after the loss, he stood before Francona's desk, asking, ''What is your comfort level with this team's position in the AL East?"

''I know you ask me that every night," Francona said. ''I don't want to say it's not an issue.

''We lost a tough game tonight. I don't think my comfort level is the most important thing we've got going right now. My stomach hurts. Not because of that. It's just not the way we look at things."

No, but there are 12 to go.

''We went through a little bad spell and the Yankees are hot," Wells said. ''It was just made for this going into late September. That's what pennant races are all about. That team finds a way to crawl back into it. We've got to go out and play great baseball from this point on.

It's ours to lose."

Said Millar: ''If you told me in February at 12 games we'd have a half a game lead, I'd say let's go. One thing we don't do is panic."

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