Meanwhile, Randy Johnson pitched a gem in the Bronx, pushing the Yankees a half-game ahead of the Sox in the American League East. The torrid Indians, who handed the White Sox an 8-0 defeat, now lead the Red Sox by a game in the Wild Card race.
The grind that began in the middle of February under the sun of Fort Myers, Fla., is now down to just 10 games, with the Red Sox needing to dig deep to have a chance to defend their World Series championship during the month of October.
"After it got so close, you knew it was going to come down to the end," said Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli. "Would I rather be a half-game up at this point? There's no doubt about it. If we can't make up a half-game deficit over the last 10 games, it wasn't meant to be anyway."
Leading, 4-2, entering the bottom of the eighth, Wakefield started the inning by giving up a single to Joey Gathright, and then he hit Julio Lugo. Boston's knuckleballer seemingly got a big reprieve, courtesy of a 4-6-3 double play by Carl Crawford. But Jorge Cantu stroked an RBI single to left to make it a one-run game.
"Wake had pitched so well," said Francona. "I thought about getting him out against Cantu. But Wake had thrown the ball so well. Once he gave up that hit, it was time for Timlin."
Timlin, who has been the rock of the Boston bullpen all year, produced what was, at least by the statistics, his worst outing of 2005.
Travis Lee greeted him with a single and Jonny Gomes followed with the game's biggest hit, a scorching liner over Edgar Renteria's glove that rolled all the way to the wall for a two-run triple that gave Tampa Bay its first lead of the night.
"I was trying to go fastball down and away," said Timlin. "You don't want the guy to hit the ball to left field with power, and he's got some power. Dougie set up down and away. The ball was middle up, and he just tomahawked it."
Eric Munson (RBI double) and Alex Gonzalez (RBI single) padded the lead. Timlin gave up four hits and three runs while retiring just one batter.
Per usual, Timlin didn't look for excuses.
"I probably hit less than 50 percent of my spots," said Timlin. "I wasn't good today at all. You've got to accept that. That's part of the game right there. Either you're on or you're off. Today was off. They hit me. They know I throw strikes. Maybe I threw too many."
There were no signs early on that this was going to wind up to be such a crushing loss. In fact, the Sox were the aggressors early. Mirabelli stroked a one-out double in the second and Trot Nixon followed with a single to right. Adam Hyzdu walked to load the bases and No. 9 hitter Alex Cora made it 1-0 with a sac fly to right. Bill Mueller, leading off in place of Johnny Damon, ripped an RBI single up the middle. So, too, did Renteria, making it a 3-0 lead.
Back came the Rays in their half of the second. Lee led off with a homer to right, and with two outs, Tampa Bay got a second run when Cora, trying to complete a 6-4-3 double play, threw the ball away.
It remained a one-run game until the fifth, when Manny Ramirez crushed a solo shot to left-center. It was Ramirez's 39th homer of the season and third in the last two games.
Wakefield made that two-run lead look comfortable, cruising through the Tampa Bay lineup. He threw just 80 pitches in the first seven innings.
Little did the Red Sox know it at that point, but it was all about to unravel.
Mirabelli thought Wakefield became fatigued. Wakefield didn't think it was relevant to search for alibis.
"I'm not using that as an excuse. I made some bad pitches," said Wakefield.
It was just a bad night. But one the Red Sox are confident they'll put in the rearview mirror.
"I think right now everybody has already showered it off," said Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar. "We'll be playing cards on the plane and getting ready for the Orioles series. One thing is we have short-term memories -- that's the Sox. That's what you have to have in this game. We've had our backs against the wall, we've had adversity, we've had positives. But we're going to battle all the way to the end."
They no longer have a choice.