BOSTON -- It started with a seemingly innocent pop-up in front of home plate, continued with a questionable decision by the manager and ended with a meltdown by the Orioles' top reliever.
The Orioles have found all kinds of ways to lose to the Boston Red Sox over the past two seasons, but probably none was as painful as what happened at Fenway Park yesterday when a five-run, ninth-inning lead and the best performance of Jeremy Guthrie's career turned into an excruciating, 6-5 loss.
With the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth, Chris Ray induced a ground ball to the right side from Julio Lugo, but the closer got a late start in covering first base and then couldn't handle first baseman Kevin Millar's throw. The ball hit off his glove and bounced away as the tying and winning runs scored, sending an announced crowd of 36,739 into a frenzy.
Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, who surprisingly removed Guthrie two outs shy of a complete game, spiked his cap in the visiting dugout while the Red Sox poured on to the field to celebrate their first ninth-inning comeback of five runs or more since 1998.
"That's a game we should've won, period," Millar said. "There's no rhyme or reason why we should've lost that game."
Millar's comments were repeated by several Orioles in a stunned post-game clubhouse. It would have been the Orioles' first series win over Boston since July 2005 and a huge step for a team that is trying to get over .500 and become relevant in the American League East. Instead, the Orioles (18-20) lost the series and have dropped 23 of their past 27 games to the Red Sox (25-11).
"We didn't make a couple plays that we should've made," a terse Perlozzo said. "The game should've been over."
Nothing was scrutinized more after a wild ninth inning than Perlozzo's decision to yank Guthrie with a man on and one out in a 5-0 game. Making just his fourth career start and his third of the season, Guthrie had thrown 91 pitches and given up only three hits. The Red Sox were certainly happy to see him go.
"Me and Tim Wakefield looked at each other on the bench in the ninth inning when they took Guthrie out, and we said, 'We're going to win this game,'" said Red Sox starter Josh Beckett, who allowed two runs in four innings before leaving with irritation to the skin of his right middle finger. "We both believed it."
When he was in the dugout before going out for the bottom of the ninth, Perlozzo told Guthrie that if a batter reached base, he was going to take him out of the game and turn the ball over to Danys Baez.
Guthrie got a quick out, and then forced Coco Crisp to hit a high pop-up in front of the plate. Catcher Ramon Hernandez tossed aside his catcher's mask and called for the ball. He appeared to stumble a little when his foot made contact with his mask, and the ball hit off the top of his glove, putting Crisp at first base.
"I kind of knew where it was at first," said Hernandez, who said he wasn't affected by the shadows or stepping on his mask. " ... I got a quick look at it. I just dropped it."
Perlozzo immediately walked to the mound, and after a long discussion with Guthrie, he signaled for Baez. Perlozzo reasoned after the game that, before yesterday, Guthrie hadn't thrown more than 72 pitches in a game this season and his bullpen was fresh.
"He was going into nine innings [of] work, and he had never gone past six," Perlozzo said. "We were pretty much giving him an opportunity - if he could go 1-2-3 - to stay in the ballgame. It was unfortunate that the guy got on the way he did, but at that point, I thought we had our fresh arms out there and I didn't want anything to get out of hand. Obviously, it didn't work."
Asked if Guthrie tried to talk him out of the decision, Perlozzo said: "He wanted to stay in. It was my decision."
Guthrie acknowledged he figured he might get a reprieve because Crisp reached on an error.
"I was thinking a base hit, a walk would be the situation," Guthrie said. "I said, 'I'll go through this one.' [Perlozzo] made the decision. No one could have expected what occurred."
Baez allowed an RBI double to David Ortiz and a single to Wily Mo Pena, then Perlozzo called for Ray. The Orioles closer walked J.D. Drew to load the bases and then nearly hit Kevin Youkilis with a 3-2 pitch, walking in a run and cutting the Orioles' lead to 5-2.
"When I got out there, I didn't know where the ball was going," Ray said. "I couldn't hit my spots."
With the bases loaded, Ray served up a two-run double to Jason Varitek that cut the Red Sox's deficit to 5-4. Ray then issued an intentional walk to Eric Hinske to load the bases and set up a force at any base.
Alex Cora hit a slow grounder that second baseman Brian Roberts fielded and threw home. It appeared Youkilis beat the throw, but plate umpire Gary Cederstrom called him out at the plate. The call quickly became irrelevant when Ray couldn't handle Millar's throw on Lugo's grounder. It was ruled an infield hit, with Ray given an error for allowing the winning run to score.
"I got a late jump off the mound, and I kind of lost the ball a little bit on the throw," said Ray, who blew his third save, two coming against Boston. "They essentially got one hit off me and scored five runs. I just didn't have my stuff, and I beat myself."