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Regroup therapy

Wells gives Sox, bullpen chance to clear their heads

You come into the game in the ninth with an eight-run lead and set down the side in order, like newly arrived Red Sox rookie Abe Alvarez did yesterday afternoon in the Fens, you expect to be taken for granted. But had the sellout crowd of 34,658 known that yesterday would be the second time in the last 21 games that the Sox bullpen did not give up a run -- don't choke on your granola, you read that right -- the fans might have been on their feet, wildly cheering at the end of yesterday's 11-3 win over the Detroit Tigers.

If you wanted to be smart about it, you could argue that a Sox reliever did give up a run, recovering closer Keith Foulke being touched for one while pitching an inning of a rehab assignment for the short-season Single A Spinners yesterday in Lowell. But in a season that has had few sweat-free days for the Sox relief corps, and few as rough as Saturday's 12-8 defeat in which the Sox blew a six-run lead for the first time in two years, the 42-year-old lefty, David Wells, took the heat off the pen with seven strong innings, then was content to let Chad Bradford and Alvarez take care of the last six outs.

Wells flirted with trouble throughout the afternoon, but when Magglio Ordonez's Wall-ball double brought home a run in the first, it was the only time he allowed Detroit to take the lead all afternoon.

''David Wells stepped up and pitched a great game," said center fielder Johnny Damon, who with a walk, two singles, and three RBIs led a top-to-bottom 14-hit attack in which Bill Mueller and David Ortiz (three hits apiece) each had home runs. Mueller, who has an 11-game hitting streak, has eight home runs. Ortiz has 33.

''He didn't give back runs as rapidly as we did [Saturday] and that's huge for us," Damon said. ''It takes a lot to score runs. Some days it seems pretty easy, but when you keep giving up runs, it takes the wind out of your sails."

With the help of two terrific diving stops by third baseman Mueller, Wells held the Tigers, who had stacked their lineup with nine righthanded hitters (two switch hitters), to only two hits in 11 cracks with runners in scoring position.

The Tigers had a chance to tie the score at 4 in the fifth when first baseman Kevin Millar booted Ordonez's ground ball, which kicked into foul territory, but Millar quickly ran it down and threw home, where catcher Jason Varitek launched his body across the plate to tag out Chris Shelton trying to score. The Sox then scored four in the sixth to break it open, Varitek and Tony Graffanino each doubling home a run and Damon singling home two more.

The first eight Sox runs were charged to lefthander Nate Robertson, who had been brilliant in holding the Sox to two hits in eight innings in Detroit Aug. 16, his bullpen blowing the game after Robertson was pulled despite throwing just 90 pitches. Robertson followed that outing with another two-hit, eight-inning outing against Oakland, but it was apparent from the first inning that things would proceed differently yesterday. Damon walked, took second on an infield out, and scored on Ortiz's single through the Papi Shift, which was modified after Ortiz tried to bunt and fouled it off.

''Johnny came in after his first at-bat, I heard him walking down the dugout saying he didn't think [Robertson] had the same stuff as last time," Sox manager Terry Francona said. ''Whether Johnny believed it or not, you liked hearing it. I think in our ballpark, it's different. The approach here and in Detroit is different."

That was Francona's polite way of saying Fenway is far less forgiving of a pitcher's mistakes than Yellowstone-sized Comerica Park. Millar, who these days is getting booed for little more than sticking his head out of the dugout, opened the second with a single, advanced to third on Mueller's double, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Gabe Kapler.

Mueller, whose throwing error led to a Tigers run in the third, started each of the next two innings by taking away extra bases from Craig Monroe and Placido Polanco, with near identical plays -- diving stops on the foul line, then scrambling to his feet and making perfect throws. ''Probably as underrated a third baseman as I've ever seen," Graffanino said of Mueller, who hit a bases-empty two-out home run into the Monster seats to make it 4-2 in the fourth.

Wells gave back a third run in the fifth when Brandon Inge singled and Shelton doubled him home, and even after Varitek tagged out Shelton on Millar's throw to the plate, he was still in trouble when Dmitri Young singled up the middle, putting the tying run at second. But Wells caught Monroe looking to end the inning, then got three quick ground-ball outs in the sixth.

After the seventh inning, ''They asked if I wanted to go back out," Wells said, ''and I said, 'Not really.' I was just drained."

No problem. Wells was on the hill the last time the Sox pen went unscored upon -- when he gave up all six runs in a 6-5 loss to the Tigers Aug. 17 -- and this time he called it a day with a far happier result. The win allowed the Sox to maintain their 1 1/2-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East.

They win, they have fun, and so, evidently, do the paying customers. Yesterday's sellout made it 204 in a row, the second longest such streak in history, passing the Colorado Rockies. Only the Indians (455 straight) have had a longer streak. And with just 34 games left this season (22 at home), the finish line beckoning, and October in the wings, the fun may be just beginning.

Who knows? Before it's over, maybe even the bullpen will have a few laughs.

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