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DEVIL RAYS 5, RED SOX 2

Sox stumble yet again

They can't seem to find solid footing on trip, falling to Devil Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Was it the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind that inspired Terry Francona to instruct his closer, Jonathan Papelbon, to begin warming up at the start of the eighth inning last night even though the Red Sox were down by five runs to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays?

Of course not. Francona's not that good, nor that optimistic. Papelbon just needed the work on a night the Sox' offense broke down again, as the 14 runners left on base reminded one and all after a 5-2 loss.

''It seemed like we had 'em on the ropes every single inning," third baseman Mike Lowell said on a night the Sox managed only to tie themselves into knots with their inability to hit when it counted.

The Sox went just 2 for 19 with runners in scoring position on a night Tampa Bay teased them with nine walks and two hit batsmen, much the way the Devil Rays tormented the Yankees two nights earlier by holding the Bombers to two runs despite 14 walks. The game against the Yankees was historic; the 1954 Giants are the only other team in modern times to issue 14 walks and hold the opposition to two runs in a win.

''Check if the '54 Giants did the same thing with nine walks," cracked Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, whose team came away with a win even though three-quarters of its starting infield is on the disabled list along with their Rhode Island import, outfielder Rocco Baldelli.

The rallies have been few and far between on this trip, which now stands at 2-5 with two more in the Trop and the Yankees arriving for their first visit Monday. The Sox, held to three or fewer runs for the 10th time in 23 games, are batting .159 (13 for 82) with runners in scoring position.

Second baseman Mark Loretta came to the plate with six runners on base and did not get the ball out of the infield in five at-bats. Wily Mo Peña also had a chance to knock in six runners, and he, too, managed just three ground balls and a whiff.

David Ortiz, who faced a variety of shifts last night, including one in which third baseman Sean Burroughs looked like someone dropping into punt formation, backpedaling into left field, grounded out with two on in the seventh and popped out with two on in the eighth.

Most frustrating game to date? ''Probably," catcher Jason Varitek said. ''Definitely.

''That repeated a lot tonight. I think this team can hit a lot better than we are right now and I think we're going to.

''This team is still a work in progress, still figuring each other out, figuring out their approaches, trying to make adjustments. The guys in here are working real hard. That's the good thing."

Here are a few of the bad, on a night when Matt Clement's wildness cost him dearly in the first couple of innings, Ty Wigginton delivering two runs with a double in the first after two Clement walks, and Clement's awkward throw to the plate on a bunt and Carl Crawford's single accounting for two more runs in the second.

The Sox put the leadoff runner on base seven times. That includes Varitek's Trop triple to open the second, a fly ball that fell 15 feet behind Jonny Gomes, the man standing in right field with his arms outstretched, oblivious to the ball's flight path.

Three times they opened an inning by putting back-to-back runners on base without the benefit of a hit, twice by walks and once when Casey Fossum, who hadn't won in his last 10 starts, hit both Ortiz and Manny Ramírez to start the fourth.

They went down in order only once all night, and that was in the third inning.

Even after spotting the Devil Rays a five-run lead after two innings, just as they'd spotted the Indians a 5-0 lead after two the night before, and the Tribe a 3-0 lead three batters into the game Wednesday night, the Sox sent the tying run to the plate in both the eighth and ninth innings. They went down quietly, at the end of the night, against a pitcher dumped by the San Francisco Giants days earlier who missed flight connections from San Francisco and did not arrive until a half-hour before the game.

''Thank God for modern transportation," said Maddon, who was on his way out to the dugout when Tyler Walker shambled into the clubhouse, suitcases in hand, but didn't hesitate to call upon him in the ninth, Walker responding by coaxing a double play grounder out of Lowell before striking out Trot Nixon to end it.

''He said he was fine [when he came out of the pen]," Maddon said of Walker, ''and he was."

The Sox' only breakthrough came in the eighth, when Lowell and Nixon hit back-to-back doubles off reliever Sean Camp and J.T. Snow delivered a run-scoring single while hitting for Alex Gonzalez, accounting for both Boston runs.

''If we do that in the second, we've got seven more innings," Lowell said. ''But we've been spotting teams four or five runs. When it's two or three, then you're just a rally away."

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