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First strikes

HRs power Sox to top of division

PHILADELPHIA -- The first time Phillies manager Charlie Manuel saw Manny Ramírez was in the Cleveland Indians' instructional league, when Manuel was a minor league manager and Ramírez was a freshly drafted high schooler out of Washington Heights in Manhattan.

''Even then he had great mechanics, that great balance, which allows him to keep his hands back," Manuel said last night before the Sox and Tim Wakefield smoked the Phillies, 8-0, to move into sole possession of first place in the American League East for the first time since April 22. ''I don't think anyone taught him that. You don't have to worry about Manny, I can tell you that. Don't ever worry about Manny.

''But I noticed that Manny's been roping a few more that way," Manuel said, gesturing toward left field. ''You do that a little more when you get older."

A couple of hours later, Ramírez put a swing on Phillies pitcher Jon Lieber that was reminiscent of the ones Manuel used to watch a 19-year-old Ramírez demonstrate in Florida. Ramírez, now 33, drove a ball far beyond the right-field fence of Citizens Bank Park, a homer-happy environment, for a three-run home run in the fifth, the Sox' instrument of choice last night in their fifth straight win and 10th in the last 11 games. With the injury-ravaged Orioles losing, 7-5, to the Braves, the Sox reclaimed first place and moved a dozen games over .500 for the first time this season.

While Wakefield was holding the Phillies to two singles over eight innings, his personal valet, Doug Mirabelli, delivered the first three-run home run of the night, staking Wakefield to a second-inning lead and giving the knuckleballer breathing room on a muggy night to strive for a shutout, something Wakefield does in this town every dozen years or so. Wakefield blanked the Phillies June 3, 1993, when they were still playing in saucer-shaped Veterans Stadium and Curt Schilling was the Phillies' ace and hiding under a towel whenever closer Mitch Williams took the ball.

The Phillies loaded the bases in the eighth on two walks and Bill Mueller's throwing error, but Wakefield struck out the dangerous but slumping Bobby Abreu (2 for 16) before being lifted for pinch hitter Kevin Youkilis in the ninth.

''Yes and no," Wakefield said, when asked if he would have preferred to finish the game, instead of yielding to Alan Embree for the final three outs. ''I was just thankful I was allowed to stay in the game and get Abreu."

David Ortiz hit a majestic home run off lefthander Aaron Fultz into the second deck, a two-run shot and his 19th of the season, to close out the scoring in the ninth. How inviting are the dimensions of the Phillies' new playpen, in its second season? In 37 home games, there have been 110 home runs hit, 63 by the opposition. In 37 games on the road, there have been 65 homers.

''We've heard stories that the ball carries here," said Sox manager Terry Francona, whose team has not been discriminating in where it hits home runs, having hit 24 in the last 13 games.

Ramírez also made the type of play that neither Manuel nor anyone else can claim to have seen him make except rarely, a sliding, backhanded catch of Jim Thome's foul fly by the left-field railing, at a point where it juts out a la Fenway. Ramírez's momentum carried him into the railing.

''It scares me every time he slides," said Johnny Damon, who ignored the beating his own body has absorbed to return to the lineup to single and score twice, extending his hitting streak to 11 games. ''His foot kind of went in there [into the railing]. Good thing it didn't give.

''A team without Manny Ramírez is not a playoff-caliber team."

Wakefield, who has been stingy lately everywhere he has pitched, having allowed just one run in 22 innings in his last three starts, gave up a one-out single to Lieber in the third and a leadoff blooper by Abreu in the fourth. Only one Phillie advanced to third base through seven. That was the well-traveled Kenny Lofton, who reached on a third-strike passed ball in the first, stole second, took third on Abreu's infield out but advanced no farther, Thome tapping to second to end the inning. Lofton would later leave the game with a strained groin.

Wakefield evened his record at 6-6 on a night when Schilling took another big step toward rejoining his teammates and Francona drove to work without being flipped off in the city where he managed four years (1997-2000) and first heard his name twisted into ''Fran-coma" and other variations, in multiple languages, too descriptive to record here.

Last night, a sellout crowd of 45,090 turned its wrath on the underachieving home team, which had run off a 12-1 homestand to climb back into contention in the National League East but has now lost five of its last six games. Lieber, a 14-game winner for the Yankees last season, was courted by the Sox in the offseason, Francona joining in what was ultimately an unsuccessful negotiating pitch.

There was no evidence of salesmen's smiles last night, as the Sox went to work on Lieber almost immediately. Trot Nixon doubled with one out in the second, Mueller's ground single to right sent him to third, and Mirabelli followed by cranking a hanging breaking ball into the left-field seats for his third home run of the season.

Ramírez made it 6-0 in the fifth with his 17th home run of the season and sixth in 10 games. Worry about Manny? Perish the thought.

Manuel was the Indians' hitting coach in 1988 when Francona was on the team and the coach was called by the nickname ''Grinder."

''He was great to me," Francona said. ''I don't think I could tell you one thing he told me about hitting, except when I got in the batter's box I felt good about myself.

''One day, I was having a pretty good year but struggling a little bit, and I said, 'Grinder, what do you think I should do?' He said, 'Son, if it was me, I'd hit one over that sign. If I was you, I'd just massage one over third.' I got in the box, I was laughing, but he'd made me relax."

Damon said the Sox benefited from a day of R and R in Atlantic City.

''Guys heading off to other cities, no one has a clue where to find us," he said with a wide smile. ''That's how the Sox need to roll."

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