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Sox stay up to speed

They blast Phillies for sixth win in row

PHILADELPHIA -- It started with Sliding Tim Wakefield on a Sunday night two weeks ago in Wrigley Field. And if it seems a stretch to single out one implausible first-to-home dash by a soon-to-be 39-year-old knuckleballer as the trigger to this terrific run the Red Sox are on -- one that shows no sign of abating after yesterday afternoon's 7-1 romp over the Phillies -- there is the story of the New Brown Shoes, which, as you will soon discover, really doesn't warrant similar billing.

Some might say the shoes don't even deserve a mention, never mind a place of prominence on a clubhouse bulletin board maintained by equipment man Joe Cochran. But when you're winning the way the Sox are these days -- a season-best six in a row and 11 of 12 after Matt Clement happily accepted a 5-0 lead after three innings and breezed to his ninth win in 10 decisions -- credit tends to be dispensed in the oddest directions.

But it's not hard to draw a straight line between Wakefield and the position the Sox now find themselves in, with Manny Ramirez's seventh home run in 11 games and 18th of the season, coming in the ninth inning yesterday, almost an afterthought in a victory that pushed the Sox 1 1/2 games ahead of the fast-fading Baltimore Orioles in the American League East.

''Wow, you're really going out on a limb with that one, considering that was the first game in this stretch," said a mocking Mike Myers, the Sox reliever who got in some brief exercise yesterday (two batters, a walk and a whiff) in relief of Clement, who turned in a seven-inning, seven-hit, no-walk performance and likely would have held the Phillies scoreless if Ramirez had run a fly route instead of a post pattern while in pursuit of Chase Utley's RBI double in the seventh.

On June 12, the night Wakefield averted a sweep in Chicago by putting the clamps on the Cubs with seven strong innings while impressing teammates with his hook slide, the Sox began the day three games over .500 and four games behind the Orioles in the East. Now they're a season-best 13 games over .500 and emanating a sense of inevitability to the notion that they will soon be well ahead of the O's, who probably were playing over their heads all along but are now playing ridiculously shorthanded because of injuries.

''That was a big game," said Sox manager Terry Francona of Wakefield's win. ''I remember going to [his daughter's high school] graduation thinking, I don't want to say we averted disaster, but we were scuffling, really struggling, and Wake comes out and not only pitches well, but ends up running the bases like that, which was something out of the ordinary.

''I thought there was a little extra meaning to that game. Winning is huge, but sometimes how you win a game gives you an extra push."

Coincidence or not, that night was the start of something special, the 8-1 rubout of the Cubs setting the pattern for what has been a deconstruction of whatever team happens to be standing in the Sox' way. The Sox have outscored their opponents by a stunning 3-1 margin, 84 runs for the Olde Towne Team, 28 for their victims.

Sox starters have an ERA of 1.78 in that span, with Clement yesterday making it nine times in those 12 games that Sox starters have gone at least seven innings, and nine times that the starters have held the opposition to one run or none. Opposing starters, meanwhile, have an ERA of 8.66 and have failed to get past the fith inning six times, the most recent Sox facilitator being Phillies starter Vicente Padilla, who was knocked around for five runs on eight hits, five of them doubles, and two walks in just 2 2/3 innings yesterday.

The Sox have played nine games against NL teams in that stretch, including three apiece against the Reds and Pirates and two against the Phillies, who are required to show up again today despite losing the first two games of this series by a combined score of 15-1. They've won eight of those games, their other three wins coming against the Cleveland Indians, who had been on a nice little run of their own (nine wins in a row) until the Sox showed up to squash them.

''I haven't been part of this team very long," said Clement, too modest to mention he has been here long enough to become indispensable, ''but I could see it coming eventually. I've never been around Manny. I heard people say he wasn't hitting, when it looked to me like he was hitting. Now he's really hitting."

Ramirez, you may recall, hit his first home run in 69 at-bats that Sunday night in Wrigley, so his renaissance also dovetails nicely with an offense that has become unstoppable as he has heated up. Collectively, the Sox are batting .320 during their streak (140 for 438) with 20 home runs. Ramirez, who homered off the facing of the upper deck in left-center, a big fly estimated to have carried 435 feet on this hot and hazy afternoon, was the only Sox player to leave the premises yesterday, but the Sox banged out a dozen hits, including two doubles apiece by Trot Nixon and Bill Mueller, three singles by Edgar Renteria, and an eighth-inning triple by Johnny Damon, who kept alive his 12-game hitting streak on his last at-bat.

And for the sixth time in this run, the Sox did not make an error, and have committed just six in the dozen games.

''We've been getting quality starts, and that's where it all starts," said catcher Jason Varitek, who doubled in one run and scored another. ''We're going to have our fair share of games where we bash the ball, but it's the pitching that will keep us together over the long haul."

And that's where the dots connect to Wakefield again. ''I followed him the next night," said Clement, who did the same here, ''and I wanted to do the same thing. We'd had a stretch as a staff where we hadn't done so well, and I was the No. 1 culprit, when I gave up seven runs in St. Louis and gave us no chance to win.

''But I've been on teams where the rotation has clicked together, where everyone is doing his job, and that's what's happening here."

It's either that, or the shoes. Leave it to the sharp-eyed Cochran to keep a running tally of how many games the Sox have won since Sox PR man Peter Chase went to Filene's and sprung for the New Brown Shoes. ''We haven't lost since," Cochran said.

Six and counting, with Curt Schilling on the horizon. Clearly, these shoes are made for walking.

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