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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Plan on them being there

Finally Boston's broken heroes look like they're on a last-chance power drive.

The Red Sox are 13 games over .500 for the first time this season. They've won three straight, five of six, and seven of 10. They've won three consecutive series for the first time since early June and tonight they face Jose Contreras, who has a Fenway ERA of 17.25.

I don't know about you, but I'm carving out some time in late October. There's still going to be baseball on Yawkey Way after the apple harvest, after the leaves explode into color, after the Patriots have set the NFL record for consecutive wins.

At long last, it's happening. The shock of No Nomar is over. The people in place are catching the ball and throwing it to the right people. The pitchers are pitching. The hitters are hitting. The Red Sox are going to make the playoffs as the American League wild-card entry and they are going to meet the Yankees again in the ALCS, then play the Cubs (who's their shortstop?) or Dodgers in the 2004 World Series.

Plan now. Game 7 of the 2004 Fall Classic will be played on Sunday, Oct. 31 (Halloween) at Fenway Park. The Sox ground crew will probably get to work on that World Series logo behind home plate any minute.

There's potential for a major conflict in all this. If the Sox win the World Series, they'd traditionally (can there be any tradition for something that happens once every 86 years?) have their championship parade two days later -- which would be Tuesday, Nov. 2. Also known as Election Day. Mayor Thomas M. Menino better start thinking about this now. It could be a logistical and tactical nightmare.

All of the above came into focus at Fenway yesterday afternoon when Pedro "Old Hoss Radbourn" Martinez pitched an old-fashioned, nine-inning shutout, beating the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 6-0. Pushing his record to 13-4, Pedro is 9-1 in his last 14 starts. He fanned 10 and walked none. He has not missed a start this year. If it's a salary drive, it's a damn good one. The ace gives Red Sox Nation reason to believe that maybe this could be the year. Again.

"I feel a lot more confident that this team is going to play better," said Martinez. "The team is starting to settle down."

He talked about the defense. He talked about players knowing their roles.

"We've been playing better," acknowledged manager Terry Francona. "We lost those close games, but we are playing better baseball. That's the idea, regardless of whether you string together eight . . . We just have to keep playing good baseball. I think we believe in our ball club."

Indeed. It was hard to find anything negative at the yard yesterday, unless you want to nitpick over the almost-comical slump of third base coach Dale Sveum. As we speak, wiseguys are printing bumper stickers that read, "Wendell would have held him," but the coach and his manager seem to think they'll weather this storm before the hurricane season is over.

Otherwise, it's all good news at Fenway.

"We're starting to jell right now," said outfielder/spokesman Kevin Millar, who was brave enough to take some calls on NESN after the game. "We're playing good baseball. This was the time we wanted to start playing consistent baseball, and right now we're doing it all. This is the right time when you want to play well. And Pedro set the tone."

He did. The old confidence is back. The swagger. The death stare from the wide-set eyes.

"I don't know what everybody's deal is," objected catcher Jason Varitek. "Pedro's pitched well all year."

Maybe. But he's better now. No more big innings early in the game. No more gopher balls. No more early exits and no decisions. Much as I hate to admit it, the midsummer vacation in the Dominican seems to have recharged the guy.

Martinez had not pitched a shutout in four years. One hundred and six starts.

"Right now is when we need him to be strong," said the manager.

Now. And in September. And October. In the eighth inning. In New York.

Nattering nabobs will note that the Sox feasted for three days on the not-so-mighty Devil Rays. But there are a lot of Ray-like teams coming up. And think of how much better the Sox will look once Manny Ramirez starts hitting again.

Check your calendars. Carve out some time. After trades, injuries, and months of untimely hitting and foosball defense, the Sox suddenly are playing like the team we thought they'd be when the blueprint was drawn up all those long months ago. They are playing like the team with the second-highest payroll in baseball, the team that came within five outs of a World Series, a team that should be dangerous again in October.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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