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On the edge of elimination

CLEVELAND - Fenway Park and "Sweet Caroline" can't save them now.

A global network of fans, a $143 million payroll, a front office of stat geeks, and a savvy collection of marketing persons and television executives can't help the Boston Red Sox at this hour. The Olde Towne Team is in desperate need of a strong starting pitching performance and some three-run homers.

The Cleveland Indians beat the Red Sox, 7-3, last night, taking a three-games-to-one lead in the American League Championship Series, putting the Franconamen on the brink of elimination as they prepare for tomorrow night's Game 5 at Jacobs Field. After six months of dominance and deliverance, there is a real possibility that the Sox won't play again at Fenway again until April.

Veteran Sox starter Tim Wakefield was routed in a seven-run fifth inning and crafty Cleveland righty Paul Byrd blanked the Sox for five to give the Indians their third straight victory in a series that thus far has stunned the Red Sox and New England.

"We know where we are, and there's some guys in there that have been in this situation before," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "And the best way all of us know to go about our business is to play the next game. If you start to look ahead, it can be a little overwhelming."

If any team knows how to recover from an ALCS deficit, it's the Red Sox. Boston wrote the book (which yielded approximately 26 books the following spring), beating the Yankees four straight times in 2004, becoming the only team in baseball history to recover from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series.

There are eight Sox players remaining from the '04 championship season and tomorrow night they'll turn their eyes toward 20-game winner Josh Beckett, who gets the ball against Cleveland ace C.C. Sabathia. Beckett beat Sabathia in Game 1 and a lot of Sox fans wanted to see him start Game 4. Rather than have Beckett pitching on three days' rest, Francona and Boston's baseball operations department elected to go with Wakefield. Like Curt Schilling and Daisuke Matsuzaka in Games 2 and 3, Wakefield failed to finish the fifth inning. This is not a championship formula.

Wakefield had a lot going against him. He hadn't pitched since Sept. 29. He had given up 24 earned runs in his last 25 innings, had taken two shots of cortisone in his right shoulder, owned a 6.12 career postseason ERA, and had won exactly one game since Aug. 25. If all that weren't enough, the game was played on the fourth anniversary of Aaron Boone's walkoff blast against him in the final game of the 2003 ALCS. It was also the third anniversary of the Yankees' 19-8 Game 3 ALCS win in 2004 at Fenway, a game in which Wakefield was among the pummeled.

Despite all of the above, Wakefield was brilliant for four innings. He struck out five of the first nine batters he faced and took a one-hit shutout into the fifth. The knuckleball was doing the mambo.

Thirty five minutes and three outs later, Wakefield was in the showers and the Indians led, 7-0.

Casey Blake started the avalanche with a Boone-like parabola over the left-field wall on an 0-and-1 pitch.

"It's just a matter of getting one that doesn't move so much and trying to square it up," said the Cleveland third baseman. "I got lucky there and hit one on the barrel and it seemed like that got us going a little bit."

Franklin Gutierrez followed with a single to left, then Wakefield hit No. 9 batter Kelly Shoppach with a knuckler. Pitching coach John Farrell came out to talk with Wakefield, and Manny Delcarmen started throwing in the bullpen.

Grady Sizemore erased Shoppach with a grounder to second, then Asdrubal Cabrera hit a liner that clanged off Wakefield's glove for an RBI single. When Victor Martinez cracked a single to left to make it 3-0, Wakefield was lifted in favor of West Roxbury's Delcarmen.

Delcarmen put the game out of reach with a meatball to Jhonny Peralta that the Tribe shortstop sent over the right-field wall for a three-run homer and a 6-0 lead ("It's a big blow in the game. If we can stop the bleeding there, we've still got a chance" - Francona). Then Kenny Lofton singled, stole second, and scored on a bloop into center by Blake to make it 7-0.

"We weren't stringing anything together," said Cleveland manager Eric Wedge. "The guys did a good job of pushing the inning forward."

The Sox rebounded in historic but insufficient fashion with back-to-back-to-back homers by Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramírez to open the sixth. The Sox had scored in only one of their previous 20 innings when thunder struck. Byrd gave up the first two blasts and was relieved by Jensen Lewis. Ramírez greeted Lewis with a monstrous homer to center. Establishing that he is classless as well as clueless, Ramírez raised his hands at home plate and admired his shot even though the Sox trailed, 7-3.

Lefty Jon Lester blanked the Indians in the sixth, seventh, and eighth.

Rafael Betancourt pitched the eighth and ninth for Cleveland and it was six up, six down - a return of the Sox salami bats.

"The series isn't over, but we're very aware of what their bullpen can do," said Francona.

This is a new experience for the 2007 Red Sox. They never trailed in the American League East after moving into first place April 18. They swept an anemic Angels team in three straight in the Division Series. They blasted the Tribe, 10-3, in the first game of the ALCS and led Game 2 after five innings.

Little has gone right for them since the 11th-inning implosion early Sunday morning at Fenway, and now they are learning what it's like to play from behind.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at shaughnessy@globe.com

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