BALTIMORE - Like tourists having a grand time until they discovered their wallets had been lifted, the Red Sox returned home last night wondering how the wheels suddenly came off on a trip that began with such promise.
Then they walked in the front door to discover that while they were away, somebody had started foreclosure proceedings on the place they'd occupied for the better part of the last month, first in the American League East.
After five Sox losses in their last six games, including a 6-3 defeat to the Baltimore Orioles yesterday in which they gave away a three-run lead for the third straight game, the top spot in the East has been wrested away by the Tampa Bay Rays, who in the past have never been allowed in the neighborhood. A lead that had reached 3 1/2 games in Detroit was now a one-game deficit, pending the outcome of last night's game between the Rays and Yankees.
The next thing you know, those devilish Rays are going to be demanding John Henry's yacht, too.
That fan in a Boston jersey who high-fived Manny Ramírez after the Sox left fielder's terrific catch at the wall in the fourth inning, which Ramírez turned into a double play? The fan couldn't reach Hideki Okajima after the Sox reliever gave up a grand slam to Jay Payton in the seventh that erased what was left of the lead the Sox had built behind Jon Lester (six innings, two runs). Just as well, because instead of the lucky necklace he customarily wears, Okajima might have found someone's fingers wrapped around his Adam's apple.
"I'm not real concerned," said catcher Jason Varitek, who had complemented the first-inning run Jacoby Ellsbury crafted with his feet (infield hit, stolen base, sprint home on Dustin Pedroia's single) with one of two solo home runs the Sox hit off Daniel Cabrera, Varitek's coming in the fifth, Mike Lowell's in the sixth. "We've been playing better than the losing. We just need to find a way to grind out a win."
Varitek's words were apt to inspire some eye-rolling on a day when the Sox hit into four double plays and Okajima gave up Payton's slam, the Orioles having loaded the bases with two outs and nobody on against Javier Lopez and Craig Hansen. Last season, Okajima treated inherited runners as if they were a personal heirloom, not to be trifled with. Of the 28 runners he inherited in 2007, only four scored.
So far this season, Okajima has treated inherited runners like junk you get rid of at a flea market: Of the 14 runners on base when he has entered to pitch, 11 have scored. That's 78.6 percent, the worst rate in the majors.
"Jay did a good job of staying back on a changeup," Varitek said of Payton's slam, the first by an Oriole since Scott Moore took Daisuke Matsuzaka out of the house last Sept. 8.
Okajima, who has gone mum even around the Japanese media, put up another figurative "Do Not Disturb" sign on his locker after the game.
The Sox, who won three of four in Detroit to start the trip, wound up with four one-run losses. Errors by shortstop Julio Lugo figured prominently in two of those defeats. Jonathan Papelbon had his first two blown saves, one after a Lugo bobble. Clay Buchholz was lit up twice, then yesterday went on the disabled list with a torn fingernail (Yes, you read that right). Outfielder J.D. Drew hurt his wrist, Coco Crisp developed a migraine, Lugo suffered a concussion. Manager Terry Francona missed the last two games to attend a family funeral. Julian Tavarez never made it to Baltimore, as he was designated for assignment.
And yet Varitek's observation had merit, too. The club hit 17 home runs in 10 games, including five in seven games by Kevin Youkilis. Lowell hit four home runs on the trip and drove in his first dozen runs of the season. Ellsbury continued to electrify with his speed (15 for 15 in steals on the season).
Until yesterday's meltdown, the pen had held the opposition to three runs in its last 22 1/3 innings. Tim Wakefield, Josh Beckett, and Matsuzaka made quality starts. Ramírez made highlight defensive plays, his lunging catch yesterday robbing old pal Kevin Millar of extra bases.
"He's a great entertainer," said center fielder Jonathan Van Every, who has spent eight seasons in pro ball, was invited to his first big league camp this spring, and yesterday had a single in three at-bats in his debut. "That was a phenomenal play to catch the ball, give a high-five to a fan, and turn a double play, all in one.
"I don't think that ever happened before and I don't think it will happen again."
Ramírez's catch helped keep the Orioles scoreless until the sixth, when Lester was touched for a couple of runs on Guillermo Quiroz's single, a double by Brian Roberts, Payton's infield out, and an RBI single by Nick Markakis. Lester recovered to strike out Aubrey Huff and Millar to end the inning, but substitute manager Brad Mills decided that after such a strenuous inning, it was best to turn to the pen.
Lopez looked like he might have a 1-2-3 seventh until Pedroia fumbled Freddie Bynum's grounder at second just long enough for Bynum to beat out a hit. Hansen entered and gave up a ground single to Quiroz and walked Roberts on a full count before Okajima served up Payton's slam.
"I was playing him straight up," Pedroia said of the ball hit by Bynum, which required him to range far to his left. "He broke his bat, so it had some messed-up spin on it. I took a deep angle to get to the ball, and it was right at the lip of the grass. I figured my best chance was a popup slide, but when I caught it, my glove hit my knee.
"A tough break. It was unfortunate everything happened after that."
Pedroia straightened his sports jacket and adjusted his tie. It was time, after 10 games on the road, to go home.
"We've had a tough batch of luck," he said, "but we'll regroup. We'll get our day off, then get back at it. We'll be fine."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.