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RED SOX 8, A'S 3

Sox stay in groove

Late clutch hits carry them past A's

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's that time of year, the suspenseful countdown to October when Kevin Millar, the Texas rally rustler, whips up a way to inspire the Red Sox as if they were defending the Alamo.

Millar's latest call to arms, a variation on a line from the movie "Tombstone," was emblazoned on 35 freshly made T-shirts the Sox donned before last night's shootout with the A's.

"Tell 'em we're coming," it read on the front of the shirts.

On the back it read, "And hell is coming with us . . . Cowboy Up."

"It's getting to the fun time now," said Millar. "Every pitch means something."

Does it ever. With the Sox and A's locked in a 2-2 tie in what could be a stirring preview of a postseason showdown, Terry Francona's barnstormers needed only a couple of seventh-inning pitches from Oakland starter Barry Zito to seize a 4-2 lead en route to an 8-3 victory before 37,839 at Network Associates Coliseum last night. Bill Mueller and Dave Roberts uncorked the big hits, a pair of RBI doubles after a leadoff single by Orlando Cabrera.

The victory vaulted the Sox four games ahead of the idle Angels in the wild-card race and allowed them to maintain their 2 1/2-game deficit in the American League East after the Yankees outdid the Devil Rays, 7-4.

"We understand this is just one game and we need to keep our eyes on the big picture," Gabe Kapler said. "This is a good start, but we understand this road trip is going to be a challenging one and we expect the other teams to bring everything they have."

The Sox broke the game open by unleashing some Texas-style wrath on the A's in the ninth inning, with David Ortiz cranking a three-run double to catch Baltimore's Miguel Tejada for the league RBI lead with 122. Moments later, Jason Varitek singled home the final Sox run as he extended his hitting streak to 12 games.

To prevail, the Sox needed some help from third base umpire Brian Knight on a disputed call in top of the eighth inning on a catch by Ramirez. They also got an indisputably spectacular catch by Kapler moments later, and 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief from Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, and Ramiro Mendoza, who worked the ninth.

"Those are the ways you win games," Francona said of the defensive plays in the eighth inning. Ramirez also made a nice catch on a line drive by Eric Chavez to end the innning.

The Dominican destroyers, Ramirez and Ortiz, made the tie-breaking rally possible for the Sox by launching consecutive homers off Zito in the fourth inning.

"It seems like every time I hit one, David comes back and hits another one," Ramirez said.

"It was kind of a funky game," Kapler said. "There was a little awkward feel to the beginning because sometimes you always feel like you're going to win the game, but there was a little uncertainty until Manny's home run. With Manny's home run, you start feeling that swagger. We want that swagger all the time." The A's recouped a run in the bottom of the seventh on Bobby Crosby's RBI double off Bronson Arroyo, who overcame a shaky start to last 6 2/3 innings, allowing three runs on seven hits. Arroyo got the better of Zito, who went 6 1/3 innings, surrendering four runs on six hits and a pair of walks.

"It was rough starting off," Arroyo said, "but then I had a bunch of quick innings and the next thing I knew it was the seventh. It seemed like the game went by in about 10 minutes."

Arroyo first got help from the Sox pen in the seventh inning after he depareted with two outs and a runner on third. The A's sent up pinch hitter Mark McLemore and the Sox countered with Timlin, who stranded Crosby by getting McLemore to ground out.

Then came Boston's big break. When Mark Kotsay, who had homered twice off Arroyo, slashed a line drive to left leading off the eighth inning, Ramirez charged the ball and snared it on a short hop, though Knight ruled it a catch. Oakland manager Ken Macha angrily protested to no avail, then forcefully prevented an apopletic Kotsay from charging Knight.

"I'm not going to comment on the umpiring," Macha said, "but if he would have gone out there a litle bit and been in better position, he would have able to make a better call."

It was fine with Ramirez.

"I think I did," he said when asked if he caught the ball. "The umpire said he was out so he was out." With the gift in hand, the Sox left the umps no margin of error on the next play as Kapler sprinted to the warning track in right-center, hitting both Roberts and the wall as he made a sensational catch on a blast by Eric Byrnes.Things got uglier after Ortiz's crushing blow in the ninth when Kotsay short-hopped a catch on a line drive by Doug Mientkiewicz and Knight correctly ruled it a hit. Kotsay again surged toward Knight, only to be restrained by teammates as spectators began pelting the field with debris. Someone tossed a cell phone near the Sox dugout, and Pedro Martinez picked it.

"I was dialing 911," he joked. "I wanted to help stop the damage."

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