BOSTON -- Going into the eighth inning of a 9-3 loss to the Cubs on Saturday night, the Red Sox were poised to win their eighth consecutive game and take over first place in the American League East -- just 15 days after sitting in fifth.
The division-leading Rays had already lost, and Boston -- ahead, 3-1, against Chicago -- needed six outs to finish the climb from worst to first in less time than it takes most players to get off the disabled list.
It could not have fallen apart for Boston faster or in a more ugly fashion.
The Red Sox made three errors, and Chicago scored eight runs in the eighth against an already shorthanded Red Sox bullpen that did not have stud setup man Daniel Bard available.
"We made the decision before the game to give him yesterday and today, and that's why we do it before the game," manager Terry Francona said. "Because your emotions get the best of you during the game and you want to use him. We've been relying on him a lot, and it'll do him a world of good. It didn't do us a world of good tonight, but something we needed to do."
Bard said he wanted to be out there, but he understood the big picture.
"I told them I was good to go [before the game], they said, 'You've thrown too much lately,'" Bard said. "I wanted to be in there bad, just competitive nature and also just wanting to help the team. But we set this up before the game, and they stuck to it."
That meant when Matt Albers came in to start the eighth, all that was left backing him up was newcomer Franklin Morales and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Rich Hill and Dan Wheeler had already been used.
Three batters into the inning, the bases were loaded, and Albers issued a second consecutive walk to bring Chicago within one run. A Reed Johnson double later, Boston trailed, 4-3.
What followed should have been the first out for Albers, whose ERA started the day at 1.56 and finished at 4.15. Instead, shortstop Jed Lowrie dropped an Alfonso Soriano popup, and another run scored.
"Overran it," Lowrie said. "Misjudged the wind."
Albers was charged with five earned runs (six overall). He threw 31 pitches and did not retire any of the six batters he faced.
"I felt great out there, had a plan, was just a few pitches away from having a good inning," Albers said. "They fouled off some tough pitches, and I left a couple pitches over the plate and they hit 'em."
On came Morales, a left-hander, for his Red Sox debut, and neither his performance -- nor his defensive support -- was any better than Albers'. Four more runs came in before the inning ended, two on a play that should have resulted in a rundown at the plate and at least one out for the Sox. Instead, both Kevin Youkilis at third and Carl Crawford in left field made errors.
Soriano, who began the play on third base, tagged up on a shallow fly to right and broke for home but stopped. Jeff Baker, on second base to start the play, ran to third. Soriano retreated to third, with catcher Jason Varitek running him back as Baker arrived at the bag. Varitek threw to Youkilis, who couldn't glove the ball, which squirted out to left field. When Crawford tried to throw out Baker at the plate, his throw was offline.
"Because of the score of the game, they got those first couple hits, they get the walk, and all of a sudden, you're pitching to the scoreboard and then it really unraveled," Francona said. "We dropped balls, we threw 'em away. It just got a little bit ugly."
Chicago sent 12 men to the plate in the frame.
Despite the rough ending to the night, the Red Sox can still win the three-game series with Chicago on Sunday, and they still sit just a half-game out of first place.
"Who cares? It's baseball, deal with it," Lowrie said when asked about the loss of momentum. "Who cares, we'll play tomorrow. If that's going to throw you for a loop, then find a different job."
Sox starter Alfredo Aceves wasn't the most efficient in his first big league start of the season -- throwing 86 pitches in his five innings -- but he outpitched Carlos Zambrano, who went 5 2/3 innings and needed 122 pitches. Aceves allowed one run on three hits with two walks and two strikeouts.
"I felt comfortable with my body," Aceves said. "I walked two guys and I hit two, so you don't want that."
The Cubs took a 1-0 lead in the top of the third. Boston pulled ahead, 2-1, an inning later, on a milestone two-run home run for David Ortiz -- his 300th with the Red Sox and ninth of the season.
Ortiz is one of just five players to hit 300 homers in a Red Sox uniform, joining a group led by Ted Williams.
Boston went ahead, 3-1, in the sixth on a Jacoby Ellsbury lined single to right that plated Crawford from second.
Aceves hit Chicago's Marlon Byrd with a pitch under the left eye in the second inning. Byrd was able to walk off the field and was taken to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, where he was to remain overnight.
"A good win, lots of good stuff happened," Cubs manager Mike Quade said. "I can't get Marlon off my mind."
Youkilis, who extended his hit streak to nine games, was hit by a Zambrano pitch in the fifth. Home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez issued a warning to both teams after Youkilis was hit.