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Regulation win

With all starters back, Red Sox are in solid form

For the first time in two weeks, the Red Sox cleared the trainer's room and sent out the nine regulars who have rewritten an array of batting records and propelled the playoff-starved franchise to the threshold of the promised land.

Good timing, since the Sox averaged fewer than four runs a game since the nine last joined forces Sept. 8. With the original bashers back in action, the Sox produced more than enough pop to survive a late assault on their wobbly pen and outlast the pesky Orioles, 7-5, last night before 33,821 in a homecoming at the Fens.

"Not that the guys on the bench aren't great players, but we've been with Johnny [Damon] and Trot [Nixon] and Bill Mueller, and all the guys who have been out, all year long," said Todd Walker, who went 2 for 4, scored two runs, and tripled in two more. "And that's the way we're going to win the World Series, with those guys."

The victory shaved the magic number for the Sox to four in the wild-card race as Seattle defeated the Angels, 5-1, in Anaheim. The Yankees, meanwhile, missed a chance to eliminate the Sox from the divisional race and clinch the American League East as they bowed to the White Sox in Chicago, 6-3, in 10 innings.

"We're feeling good, but we know Seattle's a good enough team that they can win out," said Damon, who doubled and scored a run. "We just need to keep putting runs on the board and winning ballgames."

The Sox whittled their regular-season schedule to six games, three more against Baltimore in the Hub before a weekend series at Tampa Bay. Grady Little's mashers improved to 8-8 against the Orioles, the last team they faced with their regular nine in the lineup.

"That was a good feeling," Little said. "That was the first time that has happened since Trot got hurt over there in Baltimore, and we feel good every time that lineup is on the field. Tonight was no different."

Bolstered by the reunion, the Sox rode solo homers by Nixon, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz to their 92d victory, one shy of matching last year's total in Little's inaugural season. Ortiz and Ramirez each singled in a run, and Ramirez creeped up on Mueller for the American League batting lead (Ramirez improved to .324 as Mueller dipped to .327).

"It's great to see everybody out there," Ortiz said. "It's nice to play in that lineup. You feel kind of safe."

The bullpen provided a touch of drama after Sox starter Jeff Suppan submitted a respectable outing, limiting the Orioles to two runs on six hits and a walk over six innings. Handed a 6-2 lead in the seventh, Todd Jones surrendered a home run to Jack Cust, the first batter he had faced in 10 days, before he sandwiched two outs around a single to Brian Roberts. Little summoned Alan Embree, who emerged unscathed from the inning, only to yield three consecutive singles to load the bases with one out in the eighth.

On came Mike Timlin, who minimized the damage by surrendering a run-scoring infield single and a sacrifice fly as the Birds crept back, 6-5.

Little said he was no more ruffled by the pen's near-failure than he has been buckling his seatbelt on a jetliner. He has become inured to the potential for trouble. And why not?

"It's not going to be perfect every night," Embree said. "It's not going to be pretty every night. Everybody would like to go 1-2-3, but it's not going to happen all the time."

Ortiz provided some wiggle room with his shot off Kerry Ligtenberg in the bottom of the eighth, making it 7-5 before Byung Hyun Kim entered for the ninth. And Kim, the reluctant closer, made quick work of the Orioles, setting them down in order for his 16th save.

The Sox likely will need Kim at his best to thrive in the postseason.

"He looks like he has a lot more confidence," Damon said. "It looks like he's more deceptive now. He's throwing the pitches he wants and putting them in the right spots. He's been looking great."

The reunited nine did the bulk of their damage against Baltimore starter Jason Johnson, roughing up the righthander for six runs (five earned) over five-plus innings. In fact, they staked Suppan to a comfortable cushion in the first inning, thanks in part to Walker's two-run triple after Damon doubled leading off and Nomar Garciaparra walked. Ramirez then singled home Walker to put the Sox ahead, 3-0.

Buoyed by the lead, Suppan snuffed a couple of Baltimore scoring opportunities in the early going before B.J. Surhoff touched him for a run-scoring single in the fourth inning and Luis Matos cranked a changeup onto Lansdowne Street for a solo shot in the fifth.

Suppan, who improved to 3-3 with the Sox, has one start remaining at Tampa Bay before the club possibly chooses a playoff roster. He said he was "not concerning myself with that right now.

"The way I look at it," he said, "I'm pitching to make the best pitch I can, in that at-bat, in that situation."

In that game, it was good enough.

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