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DEVIL RAYS 7, RED SOX 4

Sinking feeling

Late collapse drops Red Sox out of first

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- So, this is how it happens.

Monday night, a 5-foot-11-inch, 190-pounder named Bubba strikes a walkoff pose in the Bronx, pulling the Yankees within a half-game. Last night, Matt Lawton, a Yankee Stadium pariah vociferously booed in recent weeks, launches an early two-run shot that stands up in 2-1 New York win.

That game went final as the Sox played out the bottom of the eighth here last night, a five-run debacle of an inning, all the runs scoring with two outs. The inning turned a 4-2 Boston lead into a crushing 7-4 loss, the hit of bitter consequence a two-run triple by rookie Jonny Gomes off Mike Timlin that pushed Tampa Bay ahead, 5-4.

''Beating the Red Sox, it's like the boy that takes your lunch money,'' Gomes mused. ''If you can get him back one or two times, it makes it that much better.''

Get back, yes. And taketh away. The Sox, atop the AL East for 64 consecutive days and 88 of 89 since June 24, are in second place, a half-game behind the hated Yankees.

''If we can't make up a half a game, this wasn't meant to be, anyway,'' said catcher Doug Mirabelli. ''It's a virtual tie."

Except that the Yankees have 11 games to play, the Sox 10. The wild card? Cleveland (89-63) won again last night and leads the Sox (88-64) in that race by one game.

''I don't think we can get in the other way,'' said Tim Wakefield, who turned things over to Timlin with two outs in the eighth, Boston ahead, 4-3, and Jorge Cantú on first. ''I think we have to win the division to get in.

''There are too many other teams that are playing well, Cleveland, Chicago. If we don't win the division, I don't think we get in. I hope that's not the case.''

Timlin entered to face Travis Lee, who was definitely not going to be allowed to face Wakefield (Lee is 10 for 24 career off the knuckleballer with 4 home runs, including one earlier in the night).

Lee singled to right, sending Cantú to third. With Timlin ahead 1-and-2 to Gomes, a rookie with 20 homers and 50 RBIs in a mere 92 games, Mirabelli set up down and away.

''The ball was middle up, and he just tomahawked it,'' Timlin said. ''Location is everything, and I wasn't in the right location.''

Gomes lined the ball over the left side of the infield, and it cleared a soaring Edgar Renteria by ''a foot, six inches,'' estimated manager Terry Francona.

Somehow, the ball rolled all the way to the wall in left-center, between Manny Ramírez and Adam Hyzdu, who spelled Johnny Damon in center a night after Damon received a second cortisone injection in 12 days.

Eric Munson followed with a double to left that went through Ramírez to the wall, with Gomes scoring. Alex González followed with an RBI single to right.

''I don't know how many pitches I threw, it's kind of a whirlwind right now,'' Timlin said. ''I probably hit less than 50 percent of my spots. I wasn't really good today, at all.''

Timlin blew his second save in nine opportunities since taking over as closer and recorded his seventh blown save of the year. His ERA, which has been below 2.00 almost all season -- it was 1.91 coming in -- swelled to 2.26.

Wakefield, meanwhile, had been the club's best starting pitcher this month, going 1-1 with 22 strikeouts, 5 walks, and 5 runs allowed in 26 innings pitched before last night. Outside of a two-run second inning, he was fine, until the eighth. Joey Gathright led off with a single and went to second on a wild pitch, then Wakefield hit Julio Lugo (his third HBP of the game).

Wakefield got speedy Carl Crawford to hit into a double play, then allowed a two-out RBI single to Cantú (RBI No. 110 of his unheralded season).

Out came Wakefield. In came Timlin, who hadn't pitched since Saturday.

''I told him it's not his fault,'' Wakefield said. ''I put him in that situation. I got him in a mess. If you want to point a finger, point it at me.''

But most will point it at Timlin, as is the nature of the job he has, a job the 39-year-old has performed with exceptional consistency this year. But, again, he failed to strand an inherited runner, his one weak point. Entering last night he'd allowed 54.8 percent (17 of 31) of inherited runners to score, the worst percentage in the AL and tied for worst in the majors.

Asked if he considered that before using Timlin, Francona said: ''I hope everything enters into my thinking. Obviously, I thought it was the right thing to do. He was ready to finish that game, in my opinion.''

In beating Timlin (7-3), Tampa Bay took two out of three in this series, five of nine at Tropicana Field against the Sox this year, and won two series against the Sox in a season for the first time since 2000.

After two innings, the Sox looked likely to pound the Devil Rays into next season. They batted around in the second, the 40th time this season this sublime offense has sent nine or more men to the plate.

With one out, Mirabelli doubled down the line in left, Trot Nixon singled, and Hyzdu walked, loading the bases for Alex Cora.

Cora, playing his second consecutive game in place of Tony Graffanino, whose availability for the weekend series in Baltimore remains in doubt, delivered a sacrifice fly for a 1-0 Sox lead. Then, with two outs, Bill Mueller singled to center, scoring Nixon, and Renteria blooped an RBI single to right for a 3-0 lead.

The Devil Rays answered with two in the bottom of the inning.

Ramírez made it 4-2 in the fifth with a home run, his third in the last two nights, fourth in five games, and 39th of the season, this off rookie Scott Kazmir (9-9, 3.85 ERA).

Wakefield settled in, allowing no runs and one hit between the third and seventh innings. In the seventh, he allowed a walk but struck out the side, including Gomes.

''It's a cartoon out there,'' Gomes said, though he meant no disrespect. ''You just don't want to embarrass yourself. He's the best Wiffleball pitcher in the world.''

But Wakefield couldn't continue it through the eighth.

Meanwhile, the Sox, by night's end, had missed a number of opportunities, mainly because of bad fortune. Renteria (1 for 5) lined out directly at people in the first, sixth, and eighth innings. Mueller, who hit leadoff, was twice doubled off to end innings. The Sox twice left the bases loaded, in the second (Ramírez popped out) and seventh (Hyzdu whiffed).

At long last, after 30 games in 30 days, the team gets one off, today in Baltimore, then plays the closing 10.

''I think you can see we're playing mediocre ball right now,'' said Mirabelli, whose team is 6-8 in its last 14, while the Yankees are 11-3. ''A lot of guys need that day off, mentally and physically.''

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