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Mirabelli puts charge into Sox

TORONTO -- Doug Mirabelli seemed to see it coming. Three hours before last night's game against the Blue Jays, Tim Wakefield's personal catcher playfully cajoled reporters to pepper manager Terry Francona with questions about why he was batting eighth in the order despite having three hits, including a homer, in six career at-bats against Toronto starter Ted Lilly.

"Did you know Doug Mirabelli is batting .500 against Ted Lilly?" a compliant participant asked the skipper.

"So's [Varitek], with more production," Francona replied, playing along. "Tek's 4 for 8. [Mirabelli's] 3 for 6."

Mirabelli, blending into the overflow of reporters outside Francona's office, prompted a follow-up query.

"Does Varitek have a home run?" the manager was asked. "Apparently Mr. Mirabelli does."

Correction: Make that three home runs in eight at-bats off Lilly. As if Mirabelli were starring in his self-written story, he went from all but lobbying Francona to stick him in Manny Ramirez's cleanup spot to putting the Red Sox on his back as he launched a pair of homers off Toronto's lefty starter to knock in three runs and spearhead a 4-2 victory over the faltering Jays before 16,163 at SkyDome.

"Unbelievable," Wakefield said. "He made the difference in our game tonight."

Basking in the moment, Mirabelli jokingly parted a sea of reporters stationed at his locker afterward by saying, "Big man coming through," as a few of his teammates applauded.

"Does it surprise you?" Mirabelli responded to the first question about his big night. "It always seems like every time I get a hit it's a surprise."

That could end quickly if he maintains his current pace. After all, he has homered three times in nine at-bats this season while batting .556 (5 for 9). What is he, the Johnny Bench of backup catchers?

"I love my role, I really do," he said in all sincerity. "I love backing up Tek. I can relax for four days and then go give it all I have for one day."

Unlike Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, who insisted Tim McCarver serve as his personal catcher, Wakefield has never demanded he pitch only to Mirabelli. But maybe it's time he started. After all, Wakefield has gone 20-9 with a 3.61 ERA since Mirabelli became his exclusive catcher July 23, 2002. And Mirabelli is headed for free agency after the season.

"I can appreciate it," Wakefield said of Mirabelli trying to make the most of his role. "I know the amount of work he puts into his hitting. It's tough to hit and be consistent when you're only playing once every five days, but he's done a great job. Three homers already, that's pretty awesome. Not to mention his catching ability, too."

Wakefield has pitched to a vanload of catchers over his 10 seasons with the Sox. (Remember Mike Macfarlane?) But few have advanced the knuckleballer's cause as much as Mirabelli, especially last night. With the Sox lineup otherwise all but unable to break through against Lilly and Toronto's relief corps, Mirabelli pounded a changeup over the right-field fence leading off the third inning and slammed a two-run shot off the face of an upper deck in left field with two outs in the fourth to provide all the runs the Sox needed.

"Every once in a while you get a guy you match up well against," he said. "It's the luck of the draw I got to face him and got a couple of good pitches to hit."

Maybe it's not all luck.

"It's a huge advantage for me to know when I'm playing," Mirabelli said. "I can put all my focus into that pitcher and watch video or whatever for four days and try to get a little edge for myself to feel confident going in there."

Francona relished the contribution, which helped the Sox win for the fifth time in six games.

"Any time you get production offensively from somebody who plays like Dougie does, not being in there all the time, what a bonus," Francona said.

In any case, Wakefield made the most of Mirabelli's offensive surge, stifling the Jays for 6 2/3 innings as he improved to 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA through his first three starts. Wakefield showed again why he has worn the same uniform longer than any American League pitcher but Anaheim's Troy Percival, Minnesota's Brad Radke, and New York's Mariano Rivera (those three have longer tenures only because the Sox acquired Wakefield April 26, 1995, not long after the other three opened their first seasons with their respective teams).

Wakefield, who has held opponents to a .206 batting average, scattered six hits and two walks as he rationed the Jays only the two runs before he handed off to Alan Embree with two outs in the seventh. Embree carried the Sox through the eighth before Keith Foulke mowed down the Jays in the ninth for his fifth save in as many opportunities.

Sox relievers extended their streak of scoreless innings to 13 1/3 as they helped extend Toronto's run of misery. The Jays became the first American League team since the 1992 Tigers to open a season 0-8 at home.

As for Mirabelli, he is scheduled to return to the bench tonight as Varitek catches Curt Schilling in the series finale. But Mirabelli just might show up at Francona's door to try to change the manager's mind.

"It doesn't mean he's going to play," Francona said, "but he'll be there [at the door], I guarantee you."

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