TORONTO - Terry Francona felt he had to find out last night whether he could trust Eric Gagné in October. How much that costs him in September remains to be seen.
For the first time in almost a month, Francona called upon Gagné to protect a lead. The only difference in the result was that Gagné didn't have to walk home through a gantlet of insults as he did the August night he blew a ninth-inning lead against the Angels in Fenway Park.
After he got two quick outs in the eighth inning last night against the Blue Jays, Gagné's radar suddenly went haywire. He walked three batters, forcing home the tying run, then gave up a two-run double to pinch hitter Russ Adams that pinned a 4-3 loss on the Red Sox, their fourth in five games.
"There were a lot of reasons to keep him out there and pitch and have success," said Francona, explaining why he took the long view and stayed with Gagné even as the wheels came off, and even though he had Jonathan Papelbon warming up. "If it doesn't work, it hurts. It hurts all of us. I think it's the right thing to do. That doesn't make it easier."
Moments later, the manager reflected on the same theme.
"That's why we stay with him," said Francona. "We believe, even when other people don't or it's hard to believe. I think that's part of why we are successful. It certainly doesn't feel like it tonight."
That explanation almost certainly will not satisfy the legions of fans who watched the lead over the Yankees shrink to 2 1/2 games in the AL East with 10 to play (the Yanks have 11). Those fans probably weren't mollified by the news of the Tigers' loss in Cleveland, which means the Sox' magic number to clinch a postseason berth is down to 4. Any combination of Sox wins and Tiger losses totaling four, and the Sox are assured of a spot in the October tournament.
That's not the same as winning the division, of course, and now Boston's hold on the best record in the league is down to just a half-game over the Indians and the Angels. Prestige and home-field advantage are teetering in the balance, but Francona maintained that he had to know whether Gagné would prove reliable - not wildly successful, as he was with the Dodgers before he got hurt, but someone who can get the tough outs when needed.
So far, the answer has been as loud and clear as Gagné's voice was soft and pained after last night's defeat. Gagné has pitched 15 times for the Sox since coming from Texas in a trading-deadline deal. He has given up 14 earned runs in 14 innings, an ERA of 9.00. He has a win, two losses, and three blown saves. He was supposed to be the stabilizer. Instead, he has fostered more doubt than anyone on the roster, including J.D. Drew, over whose head Adams's tie-breaking double flew.
"I don't know how to put it in words," said Gagné, who had been given a little time off because he'd worked too hard to regain his form after the meltdowns in the first week after his arrival, and then had performed well in nonpressure situations, putting up zeros in six of his last seven outings. "It's very frustrating.
"I felt good physically. I walked [Frank] Thomas, and after that I didn't throw a strike. You can't get people out if you don't throw strikes."
All season long, the Sox have dominated in the late innings. But Hideki Okajima and Papelbon couldn't hold a five-run lead Friday night against the Yankees, and Curt Schilling couldn't preserve a tie game Sunday night in another loss to the Bombers. After losing last night in a game in which Jon Lester went 6 2/3 innings to give the Sox a 2-1 lead over A.J. Burnett, the Sox are now 79-6 in games they led after seven.
"Well, those are going to happen at some point," said catcher Jason Varitek, who broke an 0-for-18 skid with two hits, including a double that drove home Mike Lowell (infield hit) with Boston's first run in the fourth. "You don't want those to happen now, so we have to find a way to get it done. These guys we've been putting out there in those situations, I'll keep having them out there. We just need to keep going."
Lester, who gave up a run in the first when leadoff man Vernon Wells walked and Alex Rios doubled him home, left the bases loaded in the inning when he struck out Gregg Zaun. Lester was given a 2-1 lead in the fifth when Dustin Pedroia singled off the glove of second baseman Aaron Hill and came home on a double by David Ortiz, who had whiffed in his previous four at-bats and five of his last six.
Manny Delcarmen retired Wells on a liner to center with a runner aboard in the seventh on the last of Lester's four walks, before handing the game over to Gagné, the native of Canada pitching in his home country. The first two outs came easily. Reed Johnson tried to bunt his way on, but Gagné hustled over to first to take Eric Hinske's flip. Rios hit a soft liner to short for the second out.
But then Gagné went 3-and-0 to Thomas, who had hit three home runs the night before, a couple pitches borderline. Gagné threw a strike, then walked him. He went 2-and-0 to Hill, then gave up a ground single to left. He got ahead of fellow Canadian Matt Stairs, 0-and-2, then missed with his next four pitches, the last a full-count changeup - one of the few he mixed in while pumping fastballs - that wasn't close.
Pitching coach John Farrell came to the mound. Gagné's first three pitches to Zaun were wide. He threw one strike, missed again, and the score was tied. The count was 2-and-2 when Adams untied it, belting a drive over Drew. The inning ended only because Pedroia's relay cut down Zaun at the plate.
Julio Lugo homered with two outs in the ninth off Burnett, who departed with 11 strikeouts. The final out belonged to Scott Downs, who caught Jacoby Ellsbury looking at a curveball.
"We just have to get it right," Francona said, his thoughts back to Gagné. "I think that's easier said than done, but there's not really an alternative we really want.
"We want him to give us strong innings, hopefully for a long time to come this year. So we've got to just get it right."