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Messed with by a hot team

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The schedule game we all play at the beginning of the season has thrown us for a loop. When we saw this three-game series in Texas, one word came to mind: Sweep. We were right. Just had the wrong team.

The pesky young Rangers, who now own the best record in the majors (16-9), lived up to the popular de facto state motto: Don't Mess With Texas. The Rangers, buoyed by R.A. Dickey allowing only four hits in 8 2/3 innings in last night's 4-1 victory, also hit well and played good defense. They have improved without superstar Alex Rodriguez and with the addition of Alfonso Soriano. All of which left the Red Sox with a sinking feeling as they departed as quickly as possible for a four-game series with the Cleveland Indians starting tonight.

"I don't know if I had a fever or chills when I heard the crowd chanting, `Sweep! Sweep!' at the end of the game. I've never heard that before," said Rangers manager Buck Showalter.

The good will from three-game sweeps of the Yankees in New York and the Devil Rays at Fenway last week is now a distant memory, particularly now that the Yankees have won six straight with sweeps of the A's and Royals and the Sox have lost three straight for the first time in '04.

Pedro Martinez's double whammy -- blasting the Sox organization Friday night and then getting waxed for six runs and nine hits in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader -- left a bad taste.

Yet there's no need for panic, because the Sox have what should be an easy schedule for most of the month. Seven games against Cleveland, seven against Toronto, and three each against Kansas City and Tampa Bay before the West teams arrive at Fenway at the end of the month. It's a good month for the Sox to put distance between themselves and the Orioles and Yankees. However, after last night's loss, the Sox were only up 1 1/2 games on the streaking Yankees, who face the A's out West this week.

The Sox should have salvaged a game last night given how well Tim Wakefield pitched (seven innings, two runs), but Boston hitters couldn't do anything against the 29-year-old Dickey.

Rangers right fielder Brian Jordan robbed Brian Daubach of extra bases with a diving catch in the fourth, but when Johnny Damon attempted a sliding backhand stop of DH Brad Fullmer's drive to center in the bottom half, it got past Damon for a triple. Fuller scored on Mark Teixeira's ground out to first base. In the seventh, David Dellucci poked a low 3-and-2 knuckler 379 feet into the right-field bleachers for an insurance run.

The Sox bullpen came back down to earth in this series. The 32 1/3 scoreless innings -- the most by the Red Sox in more than 30 years -- ended with a thud, the pen allowing six runs in seven innings over the three games.

"The same things we've been doing to teams," Sox manager Terry Francona said, "they did to us this series."

Yet Showalter, who is trying to keep everything in perspective and his young team on an even keel, understands the circumstances, and he hopes his team understands them as well.

"We respect all our opponents," Showalter said. "Wakefield pitched an unbelievable game. We happened to catch them right in this series. We caught Pedro on a night when he didn't have his best stuff. They were out there without Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon."

Not that it was the Sox who awakened the Rangers. Hardly. The Rangers were alive and kicking. They are the surprise team in baseball, and the Sox were another team that felt their wrath. Given that the A-Rod deal between the teams fell through just before Christmas, there was a lot of interest in this series. Both teams have moved on and Soriano, who homered in the eighth inning last night, continues to beat the Sox, whether it's with the Yankees or the Rangers.

While Showalter said he will allow the team to revel in its winning ways, when asked what he found out about his team in this series, he said, "Nothing I didn't know. We don't dwell on what this series does or what that win does. We're not into statements. We're trying to win games, and last night we won one of them. We won three against the Red Sox. It's early May, and I know we're going by records [in calling the Rangers the best team in baseball], but let's see where it takes us."

Dickey threw 131 pitches and was dying to finish the game. Showalter wanted that, too. The crowd of more than 31,000 wanted it for him as well. There hasn't been that much excitement here recently. Even A-Rod's presence did nothing to inspire this football-loving area, but this band of youngsters led by Showalter has begun to bring baseball back, and with good reason.

With two outs and one on, Dickey walked Kevin Millar. Showalter ran out of the dugout, heard the boos, but got the ball out of Dickey's hand. He went to Francisco Cordero, who adventurously closed the game after he walked Mark Bellhorn and Jason Varitek, forcing in the lone Sox run. He then got Cesar Crespo to fly to center, ending the game.

"I'm not gonna say I ran out of gas," Dickey said. "Buck gave me as much rope as he possibly could. I wasn't at the top of my game early, but knowing I needed to match Wakefield pitch for pitch out there kind of gave me the jump I needed. I felt great from the third inning on."

Showalter did not want to call Dickey's performance last night his best ever, but he did say, "I think now you have to place him in the same category as some of the top starters in the game."

The Rangers looked like a college team after the game. They were high-fiving and slapping each other on the back. They were feeling the joy of sweeping one of the best teams in baseball.

"I'm not trying to downplay anything," Showalter said. "If we have success, I definitely want to enjoy it. Our team knows how quickly things can change. They know they need to cover their emotions. Sometimes you can want something too much."

The Sox tipped their hats and moved on to Cleveland, where they hope to recapture what Texas took away from them.

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