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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Gaffe won't break his spirit

CHICAGO -- It was a slow ground ball. Painfully slow, in fact. White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski was sitting in the dugout putting on his gear as he watched Juan Uribe's grounder roll lazily toward surehanded Red Sox second baseman Tony Graffanino. Pierzynski followed the ball, and swore softly to himself.

''I'm thinking, 'OK, who's up next inning [for Boston]? Who are we going to have to try and get out?' " Pierzynski said. ''I'm thinking, 'I guess we'll try to get them next inning.' "

Graffanino was processing 10 things at once. He was thinking he didn't get a good jump on the ball. He was thinking he should charge it. He was thinking he was distracted for a split second by Joe Crede, who motored past him as fast as he could to second base in hopes of breaking up what appeared to be a textbook double play.

''I didn't get a good read on it," Graffanino said. ''I tried to rush it, to get two. I just missed it."

The ball slipped under his glove. It was the bottom of the fifth, with the Red Sox leading, 4-2, and he blew the play. Instead of getting out of the inning, suddenly there were runners at the corners, and still only one out.

You know by now what happened next. David Wells induced Scott Podsednik into a foul pop to third base, then hung a curveball to Tadahito Iguchi that the rookie tattooed 372 feet for a three-run homer.

The 4-2 Red Sox lead was now a 5-4 deficit. And Tony Graffanino, the surehanded, affable, reliable second baseman, was suddenly added to the list of Red Sox personnel who have made postseason blunders.

''When [Iguchi] hit that ball out, it crushed me, of course," Graffanino said. ''Suddenly it's 5-4, and we're losing, and it's my fault."

The first thing Graffanino did after his error was approach Wells, his teammate with the White Sox in 2001, and apologize for not getting him out of the inning.

''I told him, 'My bad,' " Graffanino said. ''I asked him to pick me up."

Wells, Boston's money pitcher, was unable to do so. Yet in the wake of a disappointing loss, he wasn't about to blame his infielder for his troubles.

''I was upset, yeah, but you can't show any emotions out there," Wells said. ''I'm not going to show him up. He's played great for us since he's been here . . . if you point at anyone, point at me. I'm the one who hung the curveball."

In the quiet clubhouse following this difficult loss, Graffanino's teammates swiftly rallied around him. He has been a welcome addition, one of Theo Epstein's best late-season pick-ups, and nobody wanted to see him take the loss all on himself.

''The fact of the matter is we still could have gotten out of that inning with a two-run lead," pointed out captain Jason Varitek. ''Don't pin this on one guy. We have to do this as a group."

Varitek has been in Boston long enough to know the city loves its heroes almost as much as it reviles its goats. Graffanino's error certainly isn't on par with Bill Buckner's blunder in the 1986 World Series, or Grady Little's decision to leave Pedro Martinez in during Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS in Yankee Stadium, but this will not sit well with diehard fans who felt their team should be coming back to Boston tied 1-1 in this series.

Varitek is right about one thing. Graffanino didn't throw that hanging curve -- that's on Wells's bald pate. There were also four innings left in the game, plenty of time for a bunch of bashers like the Red Sox to make up a one-run deficit. Varitek punched out a single to lead off the sixth, but Trot Nixon, Bill Mueller, and John Olerud went down in order.

In fact, the bottom four batters in the order were a combined 0 for 14 when Graffanino stepped to the plate with one out in the ninth.

''[After the error], I was trying to stay focused," Graffanino said. ''I was hoping to get another ball and turn a double play. Something, anything to get us out of it.

''I just kept hoping something was going to happen to swing it back in our direction."

In his last attempt to make amends, Graffanino roped a double to left field, then watched helplessly as Damon popped to the catcher and Edgar Renteria grounded to the shortstop, Uribe.

''It was a huge point in the ballgame to make a mistake like that," Graffanino said, simply. ''My error cost us the game."

He does not need to see the replay again -- ever. He had already replayed it over in his head hundreds of times before he retreated to the clubhouse, took off his spikes, and packed away the glove that betrayed him. Tony Graffanino committed just three errors in 51 regular-season games for the Red Sox this season, but he knows none of that matters now.

These are the playoffs, and his part in last night's game has left them down, 2-0. We know the Red Sox can come back from seemingly insurmountable deficits. They did it last year in the most dramatic fashion possible. But, at this point, that is of no consolation to their second baseman.

''There's nothing I can do about it [now]," he said softly. ''There's nothing I can do about it [today], or [tomorrow]."

What's done is done. A silly, painfully slow ground ball, a ball he has fielded cleanly hundreds of times. That's what White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, a former infielder himself, was thinking. Terry Francona, as he watched the play unfold from the dugout, was thinking maybe his second baseman was trying to be a little too quick in making the play.

White Sox outfielder Jermaine Dye, who played alongside Graffanino in Chicago, and considers him a friend, said he was thinking the moment it was hit it might be trouble.

''You always wonder about slow balls like that," Dye said. ''You don't know if the hitter cued it off the bat, or if it was spinning a certain way. There have been a lot of mistakes made on that kind of play.

''People take it for granted that it's a routine ground ball, but I'm telling you, those slow grounders, they do funny things."

We know, we know. We've seen it before.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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