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07/02/08 12:04 AM ET

Wakefield outdueled in St. Petersburg

Veteran holds Rays to two runs, but Red Sox stifled by Garza

ST. PETERSBURG -- The time-tested lock of Tim Wakefield turning in a quality performance at Tropicana Field again came to fruition Tuesday night. Still, it wasn't enough to rescue the Red Sox, who are struggling mightily at the plate of late.

As strong as Wakefield was (seven innings, five hits, two runs -- one earned), it resulted in a stinging 3-1 defeat to the Rays, who now hold a season-high lead of 2 1/2 games in the American League East over the Sox.

In fact, this is the largest deficit Boston has had in the standings since April 9, when the club trailed Baltimore by three games.

Though the Red Sox continue to do battle without superstar slugger David Ortiz, who last played on May 31, the defending World Series champions aren't throwing any excuses around.

Instead, they will find a way to avoid a sweep on Wednesday night and beat one of the most talented pitchers in baseball in left-hander Scott Kazmir. The Red Sox counter with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who will go after his 10th win.

"I don't really care to talk about who we're missing," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "We showed up to win, and they outplayed us. That's what matters to us. We'll try to do better tomorrow. They've got a good guy going tomorrow. So do we. We'll see if we can do a little better."

The Red Sox are 1-4 at the halfway point of this 10-game road trip. This, after winning the opener in Houston on Friday.

Matt Garza (seven innings, five hits, one run) didn't outduel Wakefield by much, but it was enough to earn the win.

In his career at Tropicana Field, Wakefield is 9-2 with a 2.45 ERA. Despite how well Wakefield has pitched of late, he can't seem to buy a win -- not even at the Trop. The knuckleballer is 2-3 in his past seven starts, despite posting a 1.98 ERA.

"It's kind of getting repetitive," said Red Sox catcher Kevin Cash. "His last five or six starts have been outstanding. He's giving us a chance to win. His knuckleball was good tonight; the violence in the zone was incredible. It was tough back there."

Wakefield isn't the type of teammate to mope about lack of run support.

"My job is quality starts, [eating] innings, keeping us in the game as long as possible," Wakefield said. "I've been fortunate enough to do that the last few starts."

The Rays jumped out first in the bottom of the first. Carl Crawford drew a one-out walk. Carlos Pena reached on a two-out error by over-shifted shortstop Alex Cora.

"We get in a position where we're shifted around so much with Pena," Francona said. "Alex got himself in a funny situation. When I say that, you don't see a shortstop go after a ground ball like that very often."

Wakefield then unleashed a wild pitch, allowing Crawford to score.

After going nine up and nine down, the Red Sox got a baserunner to start the fourth, when Jacoby Ellsbury legged out a swinging bunt. The play turned into a lot more than that when Dioner Navarro's throw to first sailed down the right-field line. Ellsbury scooted all the way to third, and he wound up scoring on a sacrifice fly to left by J.D. Drew.

But Tampa Bay wasted no time reclaiming the lead in the bottom of the fourth. Evan Longoria reached on an infield hit and moved to second on a wild pitch, Wakefield's second of the night. Navarro quickly got the run home, smacking an RBI single to right.

"Navarro hit a good pitch for a single that scored the second run and that was it," said Wakefield.

Despite what the official scorer ruled, Cash felt he had put Wakefield in a bad position.

"The ball that advanced Longoria to second, I've got to knock that ball down somehow," Cash said.

Still, the Red Sox had some chances. In the sixth, Manny Ramirez came to the plate with two on and two outs, but popped out to Pena at first.

"I think there are times over the course of a season where you need a three-run homer," Francona said. "Having David and Manny in the middle, we've probably had that more than most teams."

Just not lately. And especially not on this road trip.

With two outs and Brandon Moss on first in the seventh, Cora tried to belt a double down the line in left. But Longoria made a tremendous stab and fired a one-hop throw to first for the out.

"It could have been a game-saving play," Francona said. "Crawford gets to that line about as good as anyone, but we've got a chance if that ball gets through."

Ellsbury did his best to start something in the eighth, dropping down a bunt and reaching on an error by pitcher J.P. Howell. Dustin Pedroia followed with a walk. After Drew struck out, Rays manager Joe Maddon brought on right-hander Grant Balfour. Ramirez walked to load the bases, giving Mike Lowell the chance to be the hero. But Lowell hit a grounder to short, ending the threat.

The Rays got an insurance run against Craig Hansen in the bottom of the eighth.

Cora got that elusive double with two outs in the ninth, giving Boston one last hope. It rested on the shoulders of the slumping Jason Varitek, who struck out on three Balfour pitches to end the game. Varitek now has 12 hits in his past 98 at-bats.

As for Ortiz, the Red Sox hope to see his big bat in the lineup shortly after the All-Star break. But they won't look that far ahead.

"Our objective is to win, regardless of who we send out there," Francona said. "You either win or you don't. Rather than whine about it or make excuses, we need to do better. That's how we all feel."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.