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TIGERS 7, RED SOX 2

Hitting the wall

Sox are stopped short by Verlander, Tigers

Doug Mirabelli broke his bat -- and ended the Red Sox' ninth-inning rally -- as he popped to first. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

For six weeks, the Red Sox have avoided the flat tires and fender benders that might have slowed them down as they raced out ahead of the pack in the American League.

But you don't have to be a NASCAR fan like John W. Henry to see the rippling of a caution flag at Fenway Park this week. On Sunday, undefeated pitcher Josh Beckett tore a chunk of skin off the tip of his middle finger, leaving him to spend his 27th birthday yesterday contemplating missing his scheduled start on Friday.

Then, in the third inning of last night's 7-2 loss to the Tigers, right fielder J.D. Drew, for whom they haven't made a baseball card big enough to list all the times he's been on the disabled list (seven), nearly impaled himself on the fence in front of the bullpen in a futile attempt to catch Brandon Inge's home run off Tim Wakefield. Drew remained in the game but came out in the top of the eighth for Eric Hinske with what was described as a lower back bruise.

The fact that he didn't immediately head to the clubhouse is encouraging, but with Drew's fragile reputation, warranted or not, he will be closely watched. He left the clubhouse before reporters arrived last night.

"I think they made the fence a perfect height to ruin your back," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "It's not high enough where you can run into, but it's low enough where you feel you can make a play.

"I hope he's all right. It looks like he hit right in the middle of his back. He can't feel too good."

And the Sox have hit a part of their schedule where they want to keep their roster as intact as possible. Besides this four-game set against the defending AL champions, they have the Atlanta Braves, always a tough assignment, coming in for the weekend, then they're off to New York, where the Yankees can't afford to lose more ground, and Texas, never a favored destination. Then it's home for three-game sets against the revived Indians and the Yankees, who are expected to have a Rocket in their pocket by then.

"I think that's the key to any ball club's success, staying healthy with your players," catcher Doug Mirabelli said after the Sox lost for only the second time in their last nine games and fifth in the last 19. "You saw what happened when our guys went down last year.

"You lose some of your key guys, there's a reason why they're in the starting lineup. The guys that are their backups are there to give those guys days off, not to play an extended period of time."

The Tigers, of course, have shown that you can survive big hits to your roster and still play winning baseball. They've been missing No. 1 starter Kenny Rogers (blood clot in his left shoulder) since the start of the season and 11 days ago lost top setup man Joel Zumaya (ruptured tendon in his middle finger), yet they've won 12 of 15 games to emerge on top in the AL Central.

Last night, while Wakefield nemesis Magglio Ordonez nailed him again with a three-run home run, the Sox had no answer for Justin Verlander, the 24-year-old righthander who won 17 games last season to become the Rookie of the Year. He overpowered the Sox with his high-90s fastball and devastating changeup.

"It's an easy hard," Mirabelli said of Verlander. "You see Beckett out there. You know he's throwing hard. This guy is fairly smooth and the ball just jumps out of his hand."

Smooth but not that smooth, Lowell said.

"A.J. Burnett has it, too," he said. "Verlander, I wouldn't say it's so easy, because he jumps at you. A.J. kind of has that slow, 'too cool for school' motion, and then boom.

"Verlander, he's thrusting it with some force at you. He's not trying to lull you to sleep. So I wouldn't say it's easy cheese, but it's cheese. Who cares?"

Wakefield, meanwhile, had just one bad inning, the third, but it was enough. Inge's home run with one out tied the score, the Sox having taken a 1-0 lead in the first on singles by Kevin Youkilis, Manny Ramírez, and Drew, who came into the game batting just .140 (8 for 57) over his previous 17 games.

Curtis Granderson followed Inge's home run with a single to center and stole second. Placido Polanco lined to second for the second out, but Lowell, who was playing to pull, couldn't hold onto Gary Sheffield's sharp bouncer to his left, Sheffield reaching on an infield hit.

That gave Ordonez a chance to unload, and he did, clearing the Green Monster with a three-run home run, his eighth of the season.

Only Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees has more RBIs (39) than Ordonez (37) against Wakefield, and Ordonez is batting .441 (15 for 34) against him. The Tigers have hit at least one home run in each of the last 10 games, their longest such streak since 2000.

"One good swing," Sox manager Terry Francona said, "and all of a sudden it's a four-run inning."

There's only a few guys, Lowell said, that he'd play as extremely as Sheffield.

"I think Wake is an exception, too," Lowell said. "Sheffield is so strong, he's just looking for something; he knows he can hit the ball out, even if it's outside. Yeah, him and [Kevin] Millar. That's probably it. Millar's trying to hook everything, too."

Wakefield kept the Tigers from adding to their lead until the eighth, when he was lifted after walking Sheffield to open the inning. Brendan Donnelly entered and was ineffective, giving up an RBI double to Pudge Rodriguez and RBI singles to Craig Monroe and Sean Casey.

"I tried to battle my way back," said Wakefield, "and tried to keep us in the game as long as possible, but unfortunately, we weren't able to hang in there."

Youkilis answered in the bottom of the eighth with a home run off the back wall in center -- Boston's first home run in 49 innings -- and the Sox stirred in the ninth on Hinske's bloop double between two outfielders and Coco Crisp's chopped single over the head of reliever Fernando Rodney.

But Mirabelli, who earlier had made a barehanded, juggling catch of a foul fly that popped out of his glove, had no more circus moves left. He popped out to end it.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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