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Mueller picked perfect spot

Johnny Damon had just finished a magical dash around the bases, one that had lifted the Red Sox to one of their most thrilling wins of the season. His left knee aching and lungs pounding, Damon kept his head.

He knew, before entering the pile of humanity that his scramble toward home plate had helped create, that he had better take his helmet off.

"I know guys like to pound helmets," Damon said. "My head can't take too much more beating."

Instead, most of the mobbing centered around Bill Mueller, who in his sixth game back after coming off the disabled list, played the role of hero. In the 10th inning, he swatted a two-out double that pushed Damon home all the way from first, giving the Sox an 8-7 victory last night over the Oakland Athletics at Fenway Park.

It also gave the Sox an excuse to swarm Mueller, who relished his biggest moment since missing 37 games with an injured right knee.

"That's what you think about when you're not playing," Mueller said. "That's why you want to be on this team. Moments like that make you feel good."

It made the third baseman feel especially good, because he had hit into a pair of double plays earlier in the game, both with Damon on first base.

In the 10th, though, the pair combined to give the Sox a sweep of the three-game series. After Damon singled to left with two outs, Mueller stepped to the plate. On the second pitch of Mueller's at-bat, Damon noticed Oakland pitcher Justin Lehr came to a quick set, signifying a likely pickoff attempt. So Damon shortened his lead.

It almost cost Boston a chance to win.

"I've got to stop guessing," Damon said.

On that pitch, Mueller ripped a fastball to left-center. As Damon motored around second and toward third, Oakland center fielder Mark Kotsay bobbled the ball before throwing it to shortstop Bobby Crosby. Damon focused on third base coach Dale Sveum, who windmilled him plateward. Damon, who's been battling an injured left knee, reached down for something extra that wasn't there. His knee had reached a point where he needed to call manager Terry Francona before the game to inform he was OK to play.Still, he chugged toward home. Crosby's throw zinged through the infield directly on target, but Kotsay's bobble gave Damon just enough time to slide headfirst past catcher Damian Miller. "I knew I was safe," Damon said. "It wasn't one of my best slides."

Aesthetically, he was right. As far as results go, he couldn't have been more wrong.

The winning run served as an official welcome back for Mueller, whose return brought the Sox back to the dangerous, 1-through-9-can-kill-you lineup they featured last year.

"I was trying to have a good at-bat, just get a pitch I can handle," Mueller said. "I don't think about the two double plays at all. Both balls I felt I hit really good. I'm thinking about the present and what I'm doing right now."

Blocking out the second double play was probably most difficult. Damon led off with a single in the eighth, putting the go-ahead run on first in a 7-7 tie.

On the first pitch of Mueller's at-bat, Damon took off for second, and Mueller sent a missile the other way. It had all the makings of an exquisitely executed hit-and-run, the kind this year's Sox eschew.

"Everything was perfect," Francona said, "except his aim."

Mueller's hard liner flew straight at Oakland left fielder Eric Byrnes, who caught the ball and winged it to Crosby for a rally-killing double play.

"I knew it was eating Bill up a little bit," Damon said. "He wasn't thinking I was going to go on that first pitch."

But Mueller brushed it aside to deliver one of the biggest hits of the year.

"You know what you get out of him every night," Francona said. "He's a professional. You can bat him eighth, second, sixth, anywhere. He's just a ballplayer."

And now, he's positioned in a lineup full of ballplayers, one that has showed what it's capable of doing with Mueller back in the fold.

"That's why I wanted to come back to this team," Mueller said. "I'm part of this lineup. And this team makes me a better player."

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