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Sox have healthy outlook upon return from All-Star break

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- And so, they reconvene. Some, like David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, with stardust on the soles of their shoes. Some, like Curt Schilling, with body parts if not restored to mint condition, at least in better working order (cross fingers here). Some, like Pedro Martinez, with a company-approved vacation longer than anyone else's. Some, like Nomar Garciaparra, with distasteful trade speculation dangling overhead. Some, like Johnny Damon and Bill Mueller, with hopes of picking up exactly where they were when baseball hit its annual midsummer pause button. And some, like Pokey Reese and Trot Nixon, with a desire for a fresh start.

And all with suitcases at the ready. For the Red Sox, who begin the second half of the season here tonight in the first game of a four-game set with the Anaheim Angels, all but a handful of the next 25 days will be spent on the road. Eighteen of their next 24 games will be away from Fenway Park, where they have the best home record in the American League. They will play in six states, three time zones, against teams in all three AL divisions. And next week when they return home long enough to do the laundry, reintroduce themselves to their kids, and cut the grass (wouldn't you pay to see a citified Manny on a Lawn-Boy?), they have three games against the Yankees, the team for which there is seemingly no end to the chase.

For the fourth straight time and sixth in the last seven seasons, the Sox arrived at the All-Star break in second place in the East, each time behind the Yankees, who on this occasion enjoy a seven-game advantage. The Yankees have never lost a division title after being spotted a lead of that size, which is why, outside the confines of the Red Sox clubhouse, it seemed just a matter of time before Dick Goodwin of Concord, Mass., who wrote Al Gore's concession speech after the 2000 election, would be on Larry Lucchino's speed dial.

But revived by a 5-1 homestand in which they swept the Oakland Athletics and took two of three from the Texas Rangers to seize the lead in the wild-card race, the Sox resume play with the conviction -- boldly stated by owner John W. Henry even as they were crumbling in the Bronx during a three-game sweep by the Yankees -- that better days are dead ahead.

And with manager Terry Francona now able to fill out a lineup card with all the names he expected to have back in March, there is persuasive evidence that the optimism is not misplaced. The Sox come into tonight's game batting .327 in July, the best average in baseball. They have collected 10 or more hits in nine of their last 10 games and 18 of their last 24 games. Only Texas has hit more home runs than the Sox this month (26 to 21).

Garciaparra, his commitment called into question when he sat out the last game of the Yankee series and his pride affronted by calls that he should be traded, has played like a man possessed, batting .487 (19 for 39) this month, with an on-base percentage of .524 and three home runs, driving his slugging percentage to .769. It may be a hopeless proposition to try to explain the psyche of a man willing to fight Major League Baseball over something as innocuous as a tiny logo on the back of his batting helmet, but it takes no special talent to acknowledge that Garciaparra, despite an Achilles' tendon injury that surely will remain a nuisance all summer, is performing at the highest level.

Mueller, appearing recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery, is hitting .407 this month, and is a key reason the Sox' order is more balanced -- and dangerous -- from top to bottom. Ramirez, fresh from rocking Roger Clemens's world with a home run in the All-Star Game, is batting .421 with six home runs and 18 RBIs for the month, in just 10 games.

Ramirez, who asked out of the Sox' first-half finale Sunday against the Rangers, the only game lost by the Sox in the homestand, was the picture of health in Houston when he belted a hanging splitter from Clemens into the left-field seats, then correctly predicted that Ortiz would duplicate his feat, Ortiz's home run coming off Carl Pavano of the Marlins.

But no Sox hitter is hotter than Damon, who takes a 16-game hitting streak into Angel Stadium. Damon is hitting .436 (34 for 78) during the streak, with 23 runs and 11 RBIs. He has six home runs, three stolen bases, a .470 on-base percentage, and a .679 slugging percentage.

He had seven straight games with two or more hits, including a five-hit game last week against Oakland and a four-hit game against the Rangers.

Francona said Damon appears more energized than at any time this season. Neutral observers say he is playing like vintage Johnny Damon, circa Kansas City Royals 1999.

"Everybody knows Johnny Damon is a great player," Ortiz said in Houston this week. "He plays with so much intensity."

That intensity has never burned as brightly as it has in the last three weeks, as Damon has excelled in all facets of the game. Is it just a coincidence that Damon elevated his play right around the time the Carlos Beltran-to-Boston rumors were cresting? Probably, but it is a welcome development for the Sox.

So, too, was the way Derek Lowe fought back from the brink of another potential disaster in his last start, shutting down the Rangers after they'd scored six unearned runs, including a grand slam by Hank Blalock. While his performance still was flawed in what Lowe called his biggest start ever in a Sox uniform after his "I am not a head case" address, it offered some hope that he will offer more in the second half than he did the first.

"I know the plan is to get Derek as much work as possible," said Schilling, the 11-game winner who hopes that the extra rest afforded at the break will spare him more painkiller injections in his injured right ankle.

Schilling thinks he knows the reason he has not pitched as well deep into games as he would like -- opponents are batting .312 after 90 pitches. "I fall into being a two-pitch pitcher, throwing just my fastball and splitter the third time through the lineup," he said. "Stupid."

But Schilling's consistency allowed the Sox to weather an erratic start by Martinez, who has since become nigh unbeatable, having absorbed his last defeat in mid-May. Martinez was allowed his annual July hiatus, returning to the Dominican Republic for three extra days, for which he was paid roughly $292,000 to enjoy himself while the rest of the team showed up to work.

Some call it the privilege of greatness, others the arrogant exercise of privilege. Regardless, no one on the inside -- from teammates to management -- offered a peep in objection. If Martinez helps to pitch the team into October, it will be a classic case of the means justifying the end.

Interesting, though, that Francona didn't bother to set his rotation so that Martinez would face the Yankees next weekend in Boston. Martinez is scheduled to pitch here tomorrow, which means his next start will be Wednesday in Boston against the Orioles, two days before the Yankees arrive. "I just know that any time you try to set up your rotation so that a certain guy faces a certain team, it backfires," Schilling said.

That remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Sox will explore the possibility of a trade for Arizona ace Randy Johnson before the July 31 deadline, with it by no means certain that Arizona will part with the 40-year-old lefthander. While general manager Theo Epstein stayed away from Houston, Schilling spoke with Johnson, though he insisted it was not an attempt to lobby his former teammate.

Schilling made a point of saying he believed the team as presently constituted could win, and singled out Bronson Arroyo for special praise, saying the young righthander had performed better than many No. 5 starters.

Mark Bellhorn, Epstein's best bargain pickup of the winter, is getting the majority of playing time at second base, his offensive production meriting his name in the lineup.

Not all is perfect as the Sox embark on what is likely to be one of their toughest stretches. Closer Keith Foulke, untouchable for the first two months, has recently been tagged with a loss and two blown saves. Nixon, his quadriceps not fully healed, has cooled off, just 4 for his last 26 (.154). And Reese, whose defensive wizardry made him an instant crowd favorite, has not been the same since severely spraining a thumb ligament on his glove hand. The depth of his slump is jarring -- 1 for 25 (.040) since returning to the lineup June 29. He is hitless in his last 21 at-bats, striking out 11 times.

And any questions why Garciaparra may be off the table as a possible trading chip?

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