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Knuckling down

Wakefield does his thing and Sox extend wild-card lead

Ten games to go. Three up in the loss column over the moonwalking Mariners, who are in meltdown mode. A schedule seemingly designed by John W. Henry and Larry Lucchino. You could entrust the Red Sox' wild-card chances to the Tigers' starters and Heathcliff Slocumb and still be confident to make reservations for Oakland.

Once again, the pesky Devil Rays took it to the 27th out, but, once again, it was the Red Sox who prevailed, 4-3, before 34,042 at the Fens last night. Coupled with reeling Seattle's 2-1 loss at Texas, the Red Sox are now 2 1/2 games ahead of the Mariners in the wild-card race. While Boston has remaining games against Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and Cleveland, the Mariners have six left with red-hot, first-place Oakland. How do you say finished in Starbucks-ese?

Win No. 89 came courtesy of the durable, enduring Tim Wakefield, whose knuckler danced hither and yon on Hurricane Isabel's outer winds. He pitched a season-high 8 1/3 innings, allowed only one earned run, and picked up his 11th win. It was his 218th start in a Boston uniform, moving him past Tommy Brewer and Bruce Hurst into sixth place on the club's all-time list. He's only 164 behind franchise leader Roger Clemens.

The only downer from the local perspective came when Bill Mueller had to leave the game after four innings because of lower-back spasms, not believed to be serious. He joined fellow regulars Johnny Damon (abdominal strain) and Trot Nixon (calf strain) on the pine. But Manny Ramirez knocked in two runs with a double and a towering homer, his 35th, giving him a team-best 99 RBIs. Nomar Garciaparra (RBI No. 98) and Mueller each knocked in runs with singles.

But Wakefield clearly emerged as the No. 1 star, throwing 119 pitches (in a 2-hour-17-minute game), an astounding 86 of them for strikes on a night when the wind gusted to 24 miles per hour. He retired 12 in a row leading into the ninth, but was pulled after two Devil Rays reached base on a Todd Walker error and a single. The crowd wanted him to stay. He would have liked to stay. He hadn't pitched a complete game in more than five years, covering 103 starts.

"He [manager Grady Little] gave me the opportunity to finish the game and that is all I could ask for," Wakefield said. "Unfortunately, I couldn't do it. It's a difficult decision on his part because he wants to give you that opportunity."

Little came out to talk to Wakefield with one out in the ninth and a runner on first. Two nights earlier, he had done the same thing with Pedro Martinez and let the Sox ace finish up. But Little was back with the hook after Toby Hall singled.

"It worked the other night with Pedro," Little shrugged. "But it didn't work with Wake. He still had good stuff. He was making pitches. But that was the time to turn it over to Kim." Kim got his 14th save, but not without the obligatory intrigue.

Wakefield has now won at least 11 games in six of his nine seasons with Boston and has an 8-1 record against Tampa Bay. He gave up single runs in the third (two hammerhead plays by Garciaparra in the inning) and fourth (a two-out single) and then settled down, retiring 12 straight Rays in innings 5-8.

It figured that the Sox would score on their first opportunity after getting blanked the night before at home for the first time since August 2002. Newly minted leadoff hitter Walker led off with a Wallball double, no small achievement given the wind. Walker then hustled to third, beating the throw of second baseman Marlon Anderson, who had made an over-the-shoulder catch of Garciaparra's short pop to right field, and scored on a Mueller single.

Tampa tied it in the third, but missed a golden opportunity to get more. Julio Lugo led off with a single to center and then went to third when Garciaparra threw Carl Crawford's double-play grounder into right field. Crawford went to second. Rhode Island icon Rocco Baldelli then drove in Lugo with a grounder to short. Garciaparra trapped Crawford between second and third, but Crawford got back to second safely. Then, Baldelli seized the goat horns from Garciaparra.

Travis Lee lined a single to right. With no outs, the speedy (as in 51 stolen bases) Crawford was held at third. But Baldelli, motoring from first, never looked up and the two had an unintentional and costly meeting at third. Baldelli was tagged out. Crawford remained at third. Lee stayed at first. And Aubrey Huff proceeded to ground into a double play to end things.

Baldelli called the whole thing "a bonehead play" and his manager didn't dispute that assessment.

"We should have ended up with the bases loaded and no one out," lamented Lou Piniella. "But it didn't happen. We had opportunities. I've said that a lot this year."

The Sox regained the lead with two in the third, one of them courtesy of Ramirez's double. After the Rays cut the deficit to 3-2, Ramirez pounded a 2-and-2 delivery from reliever Chad Gaudin onto the Mass. Pike. That proved to be the difference as the Devil Rays added their third run in the ninth, got the potential go-ahead run at second, but could not get a winning hit from the beleaguered Baldelli, who admitted afterward that he felt "a little out of place all night."

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