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Red Sox survive a nail-biting finish

Thousands of miles away, Aaron Small went out yesterday afternoon, the day after Oakland pounded New York, 12-0, and delivered a bold and necessary five-hit shutout for the Yankees.

Matt Clement, surely aware of this, climbed the Fenway mound last night and worked eight innings, the eighth as impressive as any other -- strikeouts of Melvin Mora and Miguel Tejada, a Jay Gibbons single, then a Javy Lopez ground out on pitch No. 110 -- in the Red Sox' 7-6 win, maintaining a 3 1/2 game lead on the Yankees.

Your Game 1 matchup in the American League Championship Series? Small vs. Clement. That might never materialize, but, at this moment, each is his team's best starter. Small, nothing shy of the Yankees' savior, improved to 6-0. Clement is 13-3, and the Sox are 20-7 when he pitches (they're 59-48 when anybody else does).

This game was close only because of the defense -- three Boston errors helped Baltimore to four unearned runs, including two in the ninth against closer Mike Timlin.

All of that shifted the postgame focus, which should have been on employee No. 30. Clement, for a significant span this summer (July 1 to Aug. 5), was a run-an-inning pitcher (30 1/3 IP, 31 ER) and had difficulty keeping the ball in the yard (7 HR).

In five starts since, he's 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA and two home runs allowed.

''I have no answer for why I struggled," said Clement, who was hit in the head with a Carl Crawford liner at Tampa amid that difficult span. ''It's all about grinding."

Perhaps the best thing Clement has done of late is keep the ball in the park. That influenced Terry Francona to send Clement back out for the eighth.

''He's proven that because his stuff moves so much he's got a pretty good chance of keeping the ball in the ballpark," Francona said.

Timlin closed it for Clement, though it wasn't easy. B.J. Surhoff touched Timlin for a leadoff single, but Timlin came back to whiff Eric Byrnes. Luis Matos then grounded to shortstop Edgar Renteria, in a way that had Renteria moving toward second base for what looked like an easy double play. But Renteria rushed it and lost the ball, putting two on with one out.

''A little too quick," Francona said. ''Trying to get two before we got one."

Renteria's 24th error, most by any shortstop in the majors and 19 more than Orlando Cabrera, opened the door for Brian Roberts's RBI double and Mora's sacrifice fly. That required Timlin to face Tejada with the tying run on third. But Timlin -- who on this night became the first pitcher in the 105-year history of the Red Sox to make 70 appearances in three seasons -- went ahead, 0 and 2, and got the star shortstop to fly out to end it.

Timlin is on pace for 85 appearances, an incredibly tall order for someone age 39.

''We have to be careful," acknowledged pitching coach Dave Wallace.

But, Wallace pointed out, Timlin's four appearances before last night required a total of 24 pitches -- 2, 7, 8, and 7. What Wallace didn't say was that Timlin would have been done after 14 pitches, not 26, if Renteria had made the play on Matos.

David Ortiz provided what amounted to the winning run, though, at the time, it merely extended a 6-4 Sox lead to 7-4. Despite all of his 2004 exploits -- 41 home runs, 139 RBIs, a .301 batting average -- Ortiz did something last night with that seventh-inning swing on a 95-mile-per-hour Jorge Julio fastball that he couldn't a year ago. He scored his 100th run in a season.

He accomplished it in fitting fashion, because it wasn't a run as much as it was a jog, the culmination of his 37th homer and major league-leading 119th RBI. The locked-in DH has homered six times in eight games.

The Sox pinned the six other runs on Baltimore starter Erik Bedard. The 26-year-old lefthander struggled with his command early, going to three-ball counts on six of the first eight batters he faced on his way to an early exit (4 1/3 IP, 7 H, 6 ER).

Still, the Sox trailed, 1-0, in the middle of the third inning, 3-1 in the middle of the fourth. Two of Baltimore's runs to that point were unearned.

Consider Baltimore's two-run fourth inning: Tejada began the inning with a bloop double down the line in right. Jay Gibbons, up next, lined a ball to Manny Ramirez in left. Ramirez appeared to catch the ball, at least momentarily, but it fell to the ground when he attempted to transfer it too quickly. Gibbons was safe on the error.

Francona argued briefly.

''I looked at it on a couple replays," he said. ''I didn't feel as strong with my argument after I came in and looked at it."

Lopez then singled to center, which was guaranteed to score one run. But the ball veered off the grass and through Johnny Damon's legs, scoring a second run on the fielding error.

Baltimore led, 3-1, but that deficit would be erased in the bottom of the inning on Kevin Millar's third homer of the week, a two-run rope between the foul pole and the light tower in left. The homer, his eighth, followed a four-pitch walk by Jason Varitek. Millar has homered four times in 11 games after going homerless in 56.

Damon and Renteria began the fifth inning with singles. Ortiz flied out to deep center, but Ramirez followed with an RBI single to right, snapping the 3-3 tie. For Ramirez, the RBI was his 116th and first in seven games.

Varitek walked, ending Bedard's night with the bases loaded. Julio, on in relief, threw a wild pitch, scoring Renteria and advancing Ramirez to third. Ramirez then scored to make it 6-3 on a Millar ground out.

Baltimore got one back in the sixth, making it 6-4 when Gibbons crushed a Clement fastball deep into the seats in right.

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