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Revved Sox

Winning streak hits 5 as they shine in home opener

So it wasn't quite last year's Opening Day. No World Series banner unfurled, no rings, no Bill Russell, no laughing Mariano Rivera taking a bow, no Alex Rodriguez miscue to open the floodgates. It wasn't perfect. But it was, as the day played out, proper.

Mike Lowell, known in these parts more for his momentous offensive decline of 2005 than for the sharp mind and bat that made him a catalyst in Florida, twice dented the Monster in equaling career highs in hits (4) and doubles (3). Josh Beckett, as good as he is, didn't mesmerize but did something perhaps more important. He competed, somehow lasting seven innings despite a nightmarish three-walk, 36-pitch opening inning. Alex Gonzalez, who if he ever loses his will to play baseball probably can land a job in the circus, turned an odd and magnificent double play, on a ball that Mark Loretta leaped to snare but instead knocked down, in the vicinity of second base. Gonzalez scooped it up, stepped on second, and cut down Bengie Molina at first.

And Jonathan Papelbon, in a mere 10 pitches, after coming out to Springsteen's ''Glory Days" (he's thinking about getting something more, well, closer-ish), nailed it down, his fourth save in four opportunities, for a 5-3 win before a record home opener crowd of 35,491 in a restored and re-energized Fenway Park. The win, the Sox' fifth in a row, improved them to 6-1, matching the best seven-game start in the club's 105 previous seasons.

''Built some character for me," Beckett said of his lengthy inning, encapsulating in five words a sentiment he shared with many members of the new Sox.

Beckett, for the second consecutive start, labored in the first inning. At Texas last Wednesday, he gave up a run before recording an out, needed 23 pitches to get through one inning, then held the Rangers to four hits and no runs over the next six innings. Yesterday, he was similarly off early. He said it might have been a ''focus factor," or ''kind of feeling things out."

''The only way a guy like that gets rattled is when he rattles himself," Curt Schilling said. ''An opponent isn't going to rattle him."

Beckett recorded one quick out, then went walk-single-walk-walk, the last walk to Lyle Overbay forced in a run. He went to four full counts in the inning and nearly walked in another run when he threw a comeback fastball on 3-and-1 to Shea Hillenbrand that Hillenbrand thought was a ball, to the point that he started to take his base. But it was called a strike, and Beckett came back three pitches later to get Hillenbrand to ground to Gonzalez for a 6-4-3 double play.

Beckett came off the mound screaming, upset mostly with his pitching but also with Hillenbrand's step toward first. Beckett, for the second time in less than three weeks (recall the Ryan Howard incident in Florida last month) called out an opposing hitter.

''I was mad at myself and a little mad that he thought that was Ball 4," Beckett said. ''I'm kind of about playing the game right. I didn't appreciate that."

Beckett would face 20 more batters, and only three would reach base (Aaron Hill double in the second, Overbay walk in the fourth, Molina single in the seventh). He faced only three hitters in the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. The only baserunner in those four innings -- Overbay, who walked in the fourth -- was erased on the unique Loretta-to-Gonzalez-to-Kevin Youkilis double play.

''How about that one play?" manager Terry Francona said. ''I told Loretta he's got to work on his feeds."

Beckett improved to 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA. He and Schilling, through four combined starts, are a combined 4-0 with a 1.61 ERA.

''He's got all the talent and a lot of confidence," Schilling said. ''He wants to be great. He wants to be something special. That's what good pitchers do. They give you a shot, and if you don't get them, you don't beat them."

The Sox, meanwhile, answered quickly, batting around in the second inning. Trot Nixon, who would later leave the game with an injured groin, a setback expected to cost him about a week, led off with a walk. Jason Varitek then singled, and Lowell laced a ball off the Wall, scoring Nixon.

''I think he looked around and saw that wall and felt he could reach that without his best bolt," Francona said. ''That's got to be reassuring."

Another reassuring sign: Adam Stern, the Rule 5 outfielder starting for the second consecutive game, shot the second pitch he saw -- a tailing 0-and-1 Josh Towers fastball -- into left field, scoring two for a 3-1 Sox lead. While the next hitter, Alex Gonzalez (0 for 4, two ground outs to the pitcher, one strikeout), was up, Stern stole third. Stern then scored on Youkilis's double for a 4-1 lead.

David Ortiz, signed Monday to a four-year, $52 million extension, stretched the Sox' advantage to 5-1 in the seventh when he took reliever Vinnie Chulk up and out, a couple of rows into the box seats in right.

In the meantime, some 1,000 miles away in Chicago, Bronson Arroyo had gone deep for the second time in as many starts, both times off Cubs lefty Glendon Rusch.

''He's got two homers right now," remarked Wily Mo Peña. ''I got zero."

Actually, Peña is more like a minus-1. In the eighth inning yesterday, with Keith Foulke on the mound, Russ Adams singled to center and Frank Catalanotto launched a ball to deep right. Peña, in for the injured Nixon, backpedaled, leaped, and couldn't close his glove on the ball. It ricocheted a split-second before his back hit the low bullpen wall, and the ball bounced over for a home run. Sox 5, Blue Jays 3.

The play was undeniably reminiscent of a moment last June when Peña, playing for Cincinnati, played a Manny Ramírez fly ball into a homer. But Papelbon wasn't going to let Foulke, or Beckett, down.

''When a pitcher goes out there and gives you all he's got," Papelbon said, after his forceful and brief ninth inning, ''you want to give that back."

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