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Hot pursuit

Scorching Sox move within 4 1/2 of Yankees

Times like these make grown men talk to televisions.

"C'mon, guys, get the [darn] out," Pedro Martinez shouted at a big screen in the Red Sox clubhouse yesterday as he watched the Blue Jays try to finish off the Yankees with two outs and the potential winning run at the plate in the ninth inning in Toronto.

Thanks to a brilliant performance from Tim Wakefield in a 6-1 victory over the Tigers at Fenway Park, the Sox were poised to cut the gap in the American League East to 4 1/2 games for the first time since June 23. And Martinez was so tickled by the possibility that he began coaching Toronto reliever Jason Frasor through the television.

"Go right back at him," Martinez barked, as if Frasor could hear him, after the righthander caught Hideki Matsui looking at a second strike.

With a number of Martinez's teammates riveted to the game, Frasor heeded the Sox star's advice. Matsui popped out and the Yankees, who two weeks earlier held a commanding 10 1/2-game lead over the Sox, lost, 6-4, bringing joy to Soxville.

"That a boy," Martinez shouted to Frasor. "You listen to me."

So it was that the Sox happily scattered to enjoy their day off today after Wakefield's masterwork (one run on three hits over eight innings) helped them win their sixth straight game, their 12th in 13 tries, and their 24th in 33 games since Bill Mueller's walkoff homer beat Mariano Rivera and the Yankees July 24 in the Fens.

"Everything's clicking on all cylinders for us," Wakefield said after he helped the Sox improve to 20-7 in August, matching the Cardinals for the best record in baseball this month. "When we have our motor running on all cylinders, it's tough to beat us."

Bring on the Angels, who trail the Sox by 1 1/2 games in the wild-card derby and arrive tomorrow as Terry Francona's crew opens a crucial stretch against its chief rivals for the wild card. The Sox play their next nine games against the Angels, Rangers, and A's.

"If we could pick the time to play these guys, this is definitely it," Doug Mirabelli said after catching Wakefield's gem.

With the knuckleballer surrendering only a solo homer to Craig Monroe (just three weeks after he matched a modern record by allowing six homers in a game in Detroit), the Sox capped their first four-game sweep of the season and equaled their longest winning streak of the year.

They also made Francona, who managed the Phillies for four losing seasons from 1997 to 2000, as happy as ever to be here. Asked if he ever had managed a team that was so hot, he said, "What are you, nuts? No, I don't think so. Not even my son's Little League team."

The Sox outscored the Tigers in the series, 20-6. That's right, they allowed six runs over four games to a team that has scored more runs this year (678) than the Angels (677). The Tigers hit only .176 in the series, with Wakefield becoming the fourth Sox starter in the series to work at least seven innings.

"You don't win without quality pitching and quality starts," said Gabe Kapler, who singled and stole second base to key a game-breaking four-run rally with two outs in the fifth inning. "No matter how good your offense is, you need success from your starting pitching and bullpen to win. That's been consistent for every team in history that's won a World Series."

As dandy as the Sox' pitching was -- Curtis Leskanic followed Wakefield's lead and pitched a perfect ninth -- the offense was good enough to withstand a strong challenge from former Boston farmhand Wilfredo Ledezma. The lefthander dominated the Sox for 4 2/3 innings before Kapler's rally-igniting single.

The Sox are 21-2 this season when Johnny Damon scores two or more runs in a game. So it was a promising sign for the Sox when Damon followed Kapler's single by drawing a walk off Ledezma before Mark Bellhorn reached on an infield hit to load the bases for Manny Ramirez.

Back from a one-game absence because of a knee injury, Ramirez promptly whistled a two-run single to right-center to give Wakefield all the runs he needed. David Ortiz, who seems to have developed a habit of matching Ramirez's feats at the plate, then rifled an RBI single, sending Ledezma to the showers. On came righthander Gary Knotts, and in came another Sox run as Kevin Millar (2 for 3) dug out a grounder to short for a single to knock in Ramirez and make it 4-1.

It was almost as if the Sox felt the rally coming. "Any time we come to the park now, we have the confidence and that little swagger we need," Bellhorn said. "It makes the game fun."

Bellhorn made it more fun in the seventh after Damon singled and stole second. When righthander Craig Dingman misplaced a 2-and-0 slider, Bellhorn pounded it over the wall of the Sox pen for a two-run shot, making it 6-1.

"Confidence plays a big factor," Francona said. "I think when [Wakefield] was struggling earlier, he was searching a little bit. He feels pretty good about himself right now. If he goes on one of those runs, I can't think of a better time."

Wakefield attributed the team's recent success in part to the pressure of the playoff race.

"We know it's almost September and we really needed to start playing better," he said. "Sometimes you get your back against the wall and you come out swinging."

If they keep swinging and connecting, no one may be safe, even the Yankees. 

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