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Cora wouldn't trade it

Utility infielder enjoying the race

Alex Cora says the pressure-packed final week of the regular season has driven him to play some of his best baseball.

The 29-year-old utility infielder, who was acquired from the Indians July 7 for Ramon Vazquez, had appeared in nine of the last 10 games before last night, six as a starter. In that stretch he hit .333 (8 for 24) -- nearly 100 points above his season average, with five RBIs.

His three-hit effort last Friday was a season high for the native of Caguas, Puerto Rico, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1996 after playing for the University of Miami.

''I just feel good about the position we're in," said Cora before last night's game against Toronto, ''and I'm just happy to be able to contribute, whether it's making a play in the field or moving a guy over. It just feels good to be a part of this."

This, of course, is the three-way playoff race featuring the Sox, Yankees, and his former team, the Indians. One of those teams will go no farther than this weekend.

The 6-foot, 200-pound infielder, who possesses tremendous mobility, is considered one of the better fielders in baseball, finishing fourth in fielding as the Dodgers' starting shortstop in 2000 with a .972 fielding percentage.

His career was slowed in January 2004 when he broke his right forearm while sliding during a Puerto Rican Winter League game.

As solid as his defense is, Cora's relatively low batting average keeps him from a regular starting role. Yet his improvement down the stretch, including a two-run triple against Tampa Sept. 19 and three hits against the Orioles four days later, has made manager Terry Francona go to Cora more often. To Cora, the two are related: The more he plays, the better he gets.

''I have more confidence than when I got here," he said. ''Being in this environment has really helped me. I've been working hard every day, but it's not just that I'm hitting right now. It's because [Francona] is happy and confident in me to play me. When I was in Cleveland, I didn't feel that way. If they don't play you, you're not going to be able to improve, so that's why my confidence is getting better."

Cora's history proves out what he says. Three years ago, while playing steadily for the Dodgers, he batted a career high .291 in 115 games and 258 at-bats, with 14 doubles, four triples, and five homers for 28 RBIs.

Such numbers may never secure him a starting role on a team such as the Red Sox, but starting is not on Cora's mind. His interest is helping the team win.

''Just having a winning tradition and way of playing like we do here is really good," he said. ''I know I'm not going to play every day, but I'm going to play often and make my contribution. That's good enough for me."

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