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Cubs’ rally comes up short against Red Sox; Theo series tied

Pinch hitter Bryan LaHair grimaces after striking out ninth inning Saturday against Red Sox closer Alfredo Aceves. | Nam Y.

Pinch hitter Bryan LaHair grimaces after striking out in the ninth inning Saturday against Red Sox closer Alfredo Aceves. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: July 18, 2012 6:46AM

The Cubs and Boston Red Sox are at the bottom of their respective divisions, but they’re still the national baseball story this weekend.

National networks scheduled the Saturday and Sunday games at Wrigley Field, and the entire hierarchy of the Red Sox — from majority owner John W. Henry to team president Larry Lucchino to general manager Ben Cherington — has been on hand to watch.

Cubs president Theo Epstein is the tie that has made this series so appealing.

It was the Red Sox fans among the 40,766 at Wrigley who departed in a happy mood after Boston’s 4-3 victory behind left-hander Jon Lester.

Cubs fans at least saw it come down to the ninth with the tying run at first and one out.

But Alfredo Aceves (16th save) struck out pinch hitter Bryan LaHair and got Welington Castillo to ground into a game-ending double play.

A two-run homer by Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the fourth off Jeff Samardzija (5-5) was the big blow for the Red Sox. It wasn’t until the seventh that the Cubs got on the board when the only left-handed bat in manager Dale Sveum’s lineup, Luis Valbuena, homered on a 1-0 pitch from Lester, driving home Jeff Baker (double) and Castillo (walk).

‘‘He’s a guy you have to keep your eye on because he’s a left-handed hitter who plays the infield and can hit it out of the park,’’ Sveum said.

The Cubs had few other chances against Lester (4-4) and his successors, stranding only four runners.

But two were on base in the sixth with two outs when Alfonso Soriano lined a bullet toward third baseman Will Middlebrooks. He caught it, then dropped it.

Soriano, however, hadn’t run to first and was thrown out easily, leaving the field to loud boos.

They started again in his next at-bat in the eighth as he struck out.

‘‘That’s one of those things that 100 percent of every player in baseball would do the same thing,’’ Sveum said in defense of Soriano. ‘‘I did. You hit it that hard at someone, and you put your head down. There’s not a player in the history of the game who wouldn’t do the same thing.

‘‘That contract comes into play sometimes [in the criticism of Soriano]. But everyone in this clubhouse knows how hard Sori works and how much he’s improved this year and how those legs of his feel. He’s done everything I’ve asked him, and every player in that clubhouse knows what he does.’’

Samardzija was as vocal in his support.

‘‘I think anyone who hits that ball does the same thing,’’ he said. ‘‘Sori is one of the best teammates you could have. Every day, he prepares the right way. I hope he’s always in the lineup when I pitch. He takes heat for things, but there’s not one guy in that clubhouse who has a bad thing to say about him.’’

Soriano was appreciative.

‘‘I think maybe [fans] don’t understand the game because it’s a line drive,’’ Soriano said. ‘‘Nothing you can do about it. If it’s a ground ball and I don’t run, they can do whatever they want. I’m happy my teammates, manager and coaches support me because they know that I’m working hard to be a better player and better teammate. It’s not fair.’’

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