CHICAGO -- The ball skipped up the middle, and Scott Podsednik -- a burner with 18 more stolen bases than anyone else in baseball -- was aboard to begin Wade Miller's night. The next batter, Tadahito Iguchi, walked.
And yet, in the wake of Boston's 3-0 shutout of the White Sox last night before a sellout gathering of 39,408 on the South Side, the largest crowd of the season at U.S. Cellular Field for a non Cubs/White Sox game, there was Miller, joking about ''as horrendous a 1-2-3 inning as I've ever had."
You read that right. Miller was out of the inning one batter later. The righthander got some help (Podsednik was caught stealing during Iguchi's at-bat, making Podsednik 50 for 60 this season), helped himself (Miller picked off Iguchi), then escaped the inning when Carl Everett grounded to second.
And thus, Miller -- whose 10.50 first-inning ERA before the All-Star break directly correlated to early exits and few wins (he had only two in 13 starts before last night) -- was on his way to his most promising outing in a Boston uniform.
He hung zeros through four innings despite the leadoff man reaching in each of them, lasted seven innings for the first time since June 11, and won for the first time since May 30. Bookend home runs provided all of the Boston offense -- an arching, two-run, opposite-field job by Manny Ramirez in the first inning, and a Jason Varitek solo shot in the ninth.
''He's got tremendous heart on that mound," said Varitek, who probably knows better than anyone the physical and mental anguish, not to mention uncertainty, Miller has worked through in overcoming the shoulder damage that ended his 2004 season. ''He fights to find what he has to do. That's what's impressive to me.
''He's not scared. He's a bulldog to me. I just hope for him that he's able to get his feel for an entire game and feel the way he wants to feel because he battles until he does and just finds ways to get hitters out."
If there was an inning that Miller was able to build off, even more than the 1-2-3 first, it was the third, when Joe Crede singled, Juan Uribe sacrificed Crede to second, and Podsednik and Iguchi walked, the latter on four pitches to load the bases.
''I've been erratic pretty much all year," Miller noted, and those two batters were Exhibits 1 and 2 last night.
But Miller delivered against Chicago's 3-4 hitters. He got ahead of Everett 0-and-2 and fanned him on the fourth pitch.
''He's right on top of the plate," Miller said. ''You pitch him in, you have to pitch him in hard. I tried to reach back a little bit. When I had to I came in hard and was able to get him out."
Miller began cleanup hitter Paul Konerko with a strike, fell behind 3 and 1, then induced a fly to right. Miller's stuff, it seemed, was finally catching up with his heart.
''As this game went on, it definitely did," Varitek said.
In the fifth, with a man on second, Miller again fanned Everett, this time on an excellent curveball. He'd finish by retiring the side in order in the sixth and seventh.
''He ended up being pretty efficient, which left a little gas in the tank to get him to the seventh," said manager Terry Francona. ''He got us where we needed him to."
Miller's counterpart, Orlando Hernandez, executed well (6 2/3 innings, 4 hits, 2 earned runs) but was sabotaged by an early Ramirez homer, a vintage opposite-field blast that looked all so easy.
El Duque didn't look all that exasperated with himself. He tilted his head to the side and made a face suggesting that he was impressed.
Ramirez has now played in 92 games, which is a convenient time to measure his season, because his average bottomed out at .224 after his 46th game.
Ramirez, through 46 games (April 3 to May 27): .224, 11 HRs, 38 RBIs.
Ramirez, in 46 games since (May 28 to July 23): .331, 16 HRs, 51 RBIs.
''I remember time and time again all April getting asked about Ramirez's slump," Francona said. ''[I said], 'Let him get hot, and we'll enjoy the ride.' "
Ramirez has blasted two winning homers in three games in this series. He did have a signature moment last night, spinning in a failed attempt to catch a fifth-inning ball hit by Iguchi that was ruled a double. Add that to his bathroom visit inside the Monster recently, and it's been a Manny kind of month.
''I'll take that Manny," said Johnny Damon, who extended to 36 games his streak of consecutive games with a hit, a run, or both. ''You can't blame for the ball in the lights or for going to the bathroom. Those things happen. I'll take him any day. He's the best hitter around."
Varitek, just about the best hitter around when facing lefthanded pitching, tacked on a third Boston run in the ninth on a 370-foot homer to the opposite field off lefty Damaso Marte, who hadn't allowed a run in his previous eight appearances. Varitek's homer, his 14th, elevated his sublime average against lefthanded pitchers to .373 (28 for 75) with seven home runs.
Curt Schilling closed this one with a scoreless, though eventful, ninth. Ahead 2-and-0 to the leadoff hitter, Konerko, Schilling's next pitch was lined off the base of the wall in left for a long single. A.J. Pierzynski then singled, with the bloop hit of all bloop hits -- a weak, opposite-field hit that just cleared Bill Mueller's glove at third.
But Schilling ended the inning with two more pitches. Aaron Rowand, who homered in each of the previous two games, grounded back to Schilling, who began a 1-4-3 double play that ended with John Olerud making an excellent pick of an Alex Cora relay throw. And Timo Perez flied to deep left, where Ramirez hauled it in a step shy of the fence.
The Sox have now won four of five after losing seven of nine, and Miller won for the first time this season outside of Fenway Park.
''It's about time," Miller said. ''It couldn't been against a better team the way the White Sox are playing right now."