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Perfect 10th

Red Sox increase win streak as hot bats help them handle the Mets in Game 1

There was catharsis for a team that for years deserved better (Bill Buckner, Class of '86, received a standing ovation in absentia), open arms for Pedro Martínez (even if he blew off David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez for lunch), and expressions of concern for the stricken Peter Gammons (Sox owner John W. Henry called the press box for updates).

In the midst of it all, there was nonstop entertainment from two teams, the Sox and New York Mets, who would not surprise anyone if they convene in October to stage a remake of their World Series for the ages two decades ago. The Sox ran their winning streak to 10 games, their longest in almost two years with a 9-4 triumph over the Mets, the team with the best record in the National League but one unable to buck a trend in which the Sox are now 12-1 against NL teams.

The Sox scored their first five runs after two outs, had 15 hits in all, and had every player in the lineup reach base at least once by the fifth to open an 8-2 lead. The streak moved them 18 games above .500, a view they've enjoyed this early only twice since 1980.

``I don't think I've ever been a part of that before," said manager Terry Francona, who can be forgiven his bout of temporary amnesia, seeing how he was here the last time the Sox ran off 10 in a row (Aug. 24-Sept.3, 2004). ``I know in Philadelphia, we didn't."

How good does it feel to be in the Sox clubhouse these days? Instead of the usual suspects, like the winning pitcher (rookie Jon Lester), the guys who hit the home runs (Mike Lowell, Alex Gonzalez) or the outfielder who threw out another runner at the plate in a pivotal fifth inning (Ramírez), listen to a guy you may never have heard of: Jason LaRocque, who serves as the team's bullpen catcher.

Moments after Mike Timlin retired Paul Lo Duca on a fly ball to Coco Crisp for the final out, the Sox pitchers hustled LaRocque out to the players' parking lot, where he normally stashes his 1994 Ford Explorer, the one that was already on its last legs even before a recent accident left it with a bashed-in front end. There, they gave him the keys to a brand-new Ford F250 truck. The co-conspirators who hatched this plan: Timlin, Curt Schilling, and Josh Beckett.

``I can't put into words how I feel about the guys," said an overwhelmed LaRocque. ``Sometimes you feel like you're a little lost in the clubhouse, and then they do something like this. It makes it all worthwhile, all that time you spend icing, the long nights, the no-days off."

That was the sweet coda to the opening game of a three-game set in which the marquee matchups -- Martínez vs. Beckett and Tom Glavine vs. Schilling -- are supposed to take place the next two nights. Last night, Lester gave another demonstration of why he may also be destined for top billing, too, in five innings in which he successfully navigated major jams in the fourth and fifth, which he ended with bases-loaded whiffs of Chris Woodward (the fourth) and David Wright (the fifth).

``He's shown the ability to suck it up in big spots and make big pitches without fear," general manager Theo Epstein said of the 22-year-old lefthander, who threw 76 pitches in the fourth and fifth but allowed just one run in that span despite facing 13 batters, abetted greatly by left fielder Ramírez, who threw out Mets rookie Jose Reyes at the plate when New York ran itself out of a big inning.

Reyes leads the majors in stolen bases, but he'd barely reached third when Ramírez fielded Carlos Beltran's one-hop single. Even so, he was sent home by third base coach Manny Acta, where he ran smack into Jason Varitek's left shinguard. The assist was Ramírez's third of the season, but teams still seem to run on him here.

``I think it was because of the speed of the base runner," said Sox second baseman Mark Loretta. ``They probably send him on everything."

Reyes was shaken up on the play, but remained in the game.

``That was a real momentum-turner," said Loretta, who singled home a run in the second and doubled in Boston's two-run fourth, when Mets rookie Lastings Milledge later got all tangled up on Ramírez's fly ball to the track, the ball falling in tandem with Milledge for a two-run double.

``That was huge," said Lester. ``It felt a little bit like a weight had been lifted off, to get him on that play."

The Mets, who began the night with a 12-game advantage over the Phillies in the NL East, lost despite three home runs, one each by the dos Carlos, Delgado and Beltran, and another by pinch hitter Eli Marrero.

Lowell (No. 9) and Gonzalez (No. 4) hit home runs in the fifth to knock out Mets rookie Alay Soler, a Cuban defector who all but assured himself of an early exit when he labored through a 42-pitch first inning, one punctuated by Varitek's two-run single.

Lester, by comparison, had it comparatively easy early, helping himself out by picking off Beltran to end the first. The Mets lead the majors in stolen bases with 84, and Francona anticipated they'd test Lester. ``He'd better be good," Francona said.

After the first, the sellout crowd of 36,250 lured Martínez out of the Mets dugout with a standing ovation as the center field scoreboard showed highlights of his career in Boston and posted the message, ``Pedro Martínez, welcome back, welcome always," -- Martínez responded by thrusting both arms overhead, wrapping his arms around himself to simulate a hug, then tipping his cap.

The warm and fuzzies ended moments later, as Delgado hit Lester's first pitch of the second inning into the right-field seats for his 21st home run of the season.

But Martínez, who poked his head into the Sox clubhouse before the game and bellowed hellos to everyone in sight -- Ramírez handed him a jar of hair gel and Ortiz jokingly berated him for skipping lunch (``I've done that to him before," Ortiz said. ``I think this was payback") -- figures the love will be back tonight. Roger Clemens struck out 16 when he came back for the first time. ``Don't expect that from me," Martínez said, but he promised he won't have any trouble sleeping.

``This is my town," he said. ``I know how they'll act."

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