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A's 5, Red Sox 1

For Sox, it's a day to split

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / March 27, 2008

TOKYO - The Oakland Athletics were the home team in name only during their two-game set here against the Red Sox. The fans, both the locals and the imported variety, were so partial to the Sox that Oakland pitcher Joe Blanton, who started Tuesday's season opener, took to calling this "Red Sox Land."

The Sox, though designated the visiting team, were given the more spacious home clubhouse and dugout, which was decided by coin flip but merely reinforced the notion that Boston enjoyed most favored nation status at Oakland's expense.

There would be one last, very visible indignity: The Athletics banner hanging from the center-field rafters alongside the Sox banner in the Tokyo Dome fluttered to the carpeted floor of the dome in midgame yesterday and was unceremoniously bundled up and carted off the field.

But when it came time to take final bows, with both teams lining up along the baselines to offer thanks to their impeccably mannered hosts, it was Oakland that did so as the victor. The Athletics earned a split of this two-game experiment in baseball global warming behind Rich Harden, who struck out nine in six innings of a 5-1 win yesterday.

Harden, who bought an ancient samurai sword on this trip, had no intention of employing it against the Sox, even though he'd absorbed some spectacular beatings at their expense. But the native of British Columbia, limited to a handful of appearances in the last two years because of shoulder and oblique issues, needed no weapon any stronger than his right arm yesterday.

"I want to give Rich credit," said Manny Ramírez, whose home run with two outs in the sixth accounted for Boston's run and gave him 491 for his career. "He pitched a great game. He has a nasty splitter. His slider was working. He was 95 [miles per hour]. He's got it all."

Jon Lester, meanwhile, had less on this day. He lasted four innings, the primary damage done in the third, when he yielded a three-run home run to Emil Brown, who had run the Athletics out of a potential tying rally the day before.

"Obviously, it's not the way I wanted to start the year," said Lester, who was stung for five hits and three walks while yielding four runs, the Athletics scoring their first run in the second when Bobby Crosby doubled and came around on Chris Denorfia's single.

"I fell behind a lot of hitters early on."

At the back end of the A's victory were two former Sox relievers now long in the tooth, Keith Foulke and Alan Embree, who pitched in both games and had Red Sox manager Terry Francona referring to the first game as "Alumni Night."

"It feels good," said Foulke, who tried out for 18 teams this winter and elected to sign with Oakland, another of his former clubs, just four years removed from World Series glory as Sox closer, and a year after he quit rather than take the $5 million the Cleveland Indians had signed him for.

"The last few years were a real struggle," said Foulke, who eroded much of the good will his ironman performance in October had engendered in Boston in '04 with a prickly personality in subsequent years that grew ever shorter as his elbow, knee, and back problems mounted and his pitching suffered. "It feels good to be back, healthy, having the ability to pitch the way I know I can pitch."

The Sox were one of the teams, he said, that scouted him at the tryout he'd staged to underscore his seriousness about playing. "My knees took a lot longer than I thought they would to heal, and that whole process ended up hurting my elbow," he said. "It was kind of a nasty situation for a couple of years. Taking last year off, I got healthy, I got my elbow fixed, and then we went back to the basics. And so far, we're well on the right path. Things are going the way we want them to go."

Foulke's decision to quit last spring, when his money was guaranteed from the Indians, was startling. At the time, he said, he didn't believe his pitching days were over.

"I really didn't," said Foulke, 35. "But it was one of those situations where was I ready to go help that ball club win? Absolutely not. And they had given me a great opportunity and I was not going to take advantage of that. I felt bad that I waited until the last minute. It made me feel a lot better knowing that I could release them of all responsibilities and just take care of myself.

"I just didn't want to be that guy to show up in spring training fat, his elbow hurting, and sit on the DL and take up a roster spot, take up money. It was the best decision for me, and I'm glad it worked out for them as well."

Before the game, Francona spoke fondly of Foulke, saying that without him, the Sox would never have won the World Series.

"I think you could go down the complete ['04] lineup and everybody who was part of the organization at that time is probably going to say the same thing," Foulke said. "It was something special. I'll take that to my grave with me. Watching them last year was a lot of motivation for me. I missed that feeling. I want that feeling back again. I want to be champion again."

The Sox trailed, 4-1, when Foulke entered in the eighth. Kevin Youkilis reached on a one-out error by shortstop Crosby, but Foulke retired David Ortiz (who went 0 for Japan in seven at-bats) on a fly to right and caught Ramírez looking at his trademark changeup.

"Once I get on the mound, it doesn't matter to me who's in the box," Foulke said. "But what was weird was walking around the hotel, seeing everybody. Sometimes you have to check yourself and say I'm wearing green and gold and not red and blue. But it was great to see the old guys and talk to them.

"But now I'm glad to be back in Oakland. I had a great time here last time, and we have a really outstanding group of guys."

That includes Embree, who pitched the ninth and struck out his former batterymate, Jason Varitek, to end the game. Embree, who was released by the Sox just months after winning the '04 World Series, belatedly learned he had injured his elbow in spring training and underwent surgery that October. He has since recovered the form that made him one of the better lefthanded relievers in the game, and last season he had 17 saves filling in while regular closer Huston Street was hurt.

"I know I'm on the back side of my career," said Embree, 38, "but I'm going to enjoy it as long as I can."

It pleases him no end, he said, to be reunited with Foulke.

"That year he sat out," Embree said, "I feel invigorated him. He sat out to figure out if he liked it or not. I guess he does. When Keith is playing, he's one of the best there is."

Both teams can be forgiven for feeling like they're about to pass through the looking glass. Not only do they travel back in time - the Sox left around midnight Wednesday, and arrived in Los Angeles at about 6 the same night - but both teams go back to playing games that don't count in the standings.

"It's a unique experience," Francona said of the trip. "I thought our players handled it very well. I was very proud of the way we handled everything that was thrown at us because it's different.

"I also thought the Japanese people and the hosts were very gracious to us. I thought they embraced the Red Sox and the organization very well. Hopefully, we gained some more fans."

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

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