By Sean McAdam
BALTIMORE -- Between stretches of poor starting pitching earlier in the year and a lineup which, even now, has had difficulty producing timely hits, the Red Sox had seemingly cornered the market on ways to lose.
Then, Wednesday night, they discovered another.
In a brutal display of fundamentals, the Sox saw one outfield misplay result in a three-run fourth, then, with the game freshly tied in the eighth inning, a breakdown between pitcher and catcher led to the winning run crossing the plate.
Four of five runs scored by the Baltimore Orioles in the Red Sox' 5-4 loss were essentially gift-wrapped, as the momentum built on their recent five-game West Coast winning streak ebbed further with a second straight loss.
Worse, the setback was largely self-inflicted, or, at the very least, avoidable.
There was one out and nobody on in the fourth when Derrek Lee skied a ball into shallow center. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia broke back. Problem was, so did center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury -- at least for an instant.
Believing the ball had been hit harder than it had, Ellsbury's initial step sent him away from the ball. By the time Ellsbury recovered, sprinting toward the infield with Pedroia scrambling backward, the ball dropped between them, untouched.
Vladimir Guerrero followed with a soft liner to short that should have been the third out. Instead, starter Josh Beckett next surrendered a 423-foot two-run homer to Luke Scott and a solo belt by Adam Jones.
"I've got to limit the damage there," lamented Beckett. "Gotta make a better pitch to Scott."
But there was no getting away from the nagging feeling that the Red Sox should have, could have, been out of the jam without a run scoring.
"Obviously, that's a huge play," Terry Francona said of the ball that wasn't caught. "Any time you give extra outs . . . That ball was up there a long time. It's not an error. But you give them an extra opportunity and it turns out to be three runs.''
A still-frustrated Pedroia practically spat out his words.
"It's got to be caught," he said.
Asked if Ellsbury didn't see the ball well coming off the bat, Pedroia said: "I'm not sure. You'll have to ask him."
"The ball went up and I kind of broke back real quick," Ellsbury recounted. "I was playing him in the left-center gap. It was a split-second back and it fell in between us. We need to make that play for Josh."
In the eighth inning, Kevin Youkilis ripped a three-run homer to left-center to forge a 4-4 tie and suddenly, and it seemed like the fourth-inning mishap wouldn't be as crippling.
"We were scrambling and not doing much offensively,'' said Francona. "Then Youk hit the home run and we get to set-up man Daniel Bard and it's like, 'Let's go.' "
Except more breakdowns were on the way.
Bard allowed the first two hitters to reach in the bottom of the eighth. He then thought catcher Jason Varitek had called for a slider, when, in fact, Varitek had signaled for a fastball.
"We crossed up our signs," said Bard. "My mistake, not his. I didn't see the fingers he put down. I saw them wrong. He put down the right thing, but I saw 'breaking ball' and threw the wrong pitch."
Predictably, it got past Varitek and the wild pitch led to both runners advancing into scoring position.
Next, a sinker handcuffed Varitek "just enough, where I didn't have my glove turned on either side," said the catcher.
Nick Markakis, attempting to score from third, was cut down when Varitek scrambled to corral the ball and flipped it to Bard, whose foot blocked the plate from the oncoming baserunner.
"I'm thinking strikeout of Guerrero for the second out, and then find a way to get the next guy out," said Bard.
The Sox, however, still had Lee at third, and he rode home when Guerrero lined a pitch through the drawn-in infield.
Bard blamed himself for mislocating ("I was yanking the ball over the plate") on all three base hits that inning.
The defeat stung.
"Kind of a roller coaster," grumbled Francona. "It turned in a hurry for us. It's a tough loss . . . Hurts. That could have been an exciting win."
"It sucks," concluded Pedroia. "We want to win."
Harder to do, of course, when they're playing as they did Wednesday night.