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Sox get back in good standing

Win clinches best 1st-month AL record

NEW YORK -- Baseball is full of reflexive actions, whether it's spitting or scratching or Julian Tavarez pointing at an infielder. Saying that your record doesn't matter because it's only April also falls under that heading.

But if you're paying attention, you know the Red Sox should be feeling mighty good about themselves after beating the Yankees for the fifth time in six meetings over two weekends yesterday, 7-4, and locking up the best record in the American League (16-8) in the first month of the season.

There will be no ring ceremonies when the Sox return home to play the Oakland Athletics tomorrow night at Fenway Park, but the fast start augurs well for making plans in October. Since 1996, the first year under the wild-card format in which MLB played a full schedule in April, four teams with the best record in April went to the World Series and five other teams won their divisions. Last season, the Tigers went 16-9 in April, the second-best record in the league, and went to the Series.

"We're playing good baseball and we're making a statement," said second baseman Alex Cora, whose fifth-inning two-run home run off Yankees ace Chien-Ming Wang, the first hit of his career in Yankee Stadium, vaulted the Sox ahead of the Bombers, 4-3, after souvenir collector Doug Mientkiewicz had wiped out an early 2-0 Sox lead with a three-run home run off Tavarez.

Cora's infield out in the third also drove home Coco Crisp, who had tripled, with Boston's second run after David Ortiz's upper-deck shot off Wang in the first, Ortiz's seventh home run of the season, had opened the scoring.

"We play solid games to get Ws," said Cora, whose hot bat (.360) threatens to take playing time from rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia (.111 in his last 16 games). "It's not like we're doing anything fancy, we're getting guys over, we're getting guys in, we're getting the lead. And with the bullpen throwing the ball the way they are, it's a good feeling when you have that lead in the sixth or seventh."

The Sox bullpen continues to be a great source of shiawase -- that's Japanese for happiness -- which is why Tavarez goes out of his way to keep not only Daisuke Matsuzaka but Hideki Okajima smiling.

"They're all my friends, Okajima and Matsuzaka," said Tavarez, whose only trouble yesterday came in the third, when he walked Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano, then crossed up catcher Jason Varitek by throwing a slider when Varitek was calling for a fastball, which allowed Mientkiewicz to forgo a bunt and deliver a long ball instead.

"I try to talk to those guys, come out with a joke every day," Tavarez said. "Hopefully, they like me a lot. I just try to make them happy. I think I'm the only player who tries to say something every day, even if it's a stupid thing."

Yuks for outs? What a trade-off. Okajima, who replaced Tavarez after Derek Jeter reached on Julio Lugo's throwing error to open the sixth, had strikeouts of Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi sandwiched around a single by Alex Rodriguez, then made a nice grab of Hideki Matsui's comebacker to end the inning.

With the Sox off today, manager Terry Francona sent Okajima out for a second inning, and he punched out two more batters, Posada and pinch hitter Josh Phelps.

That makes it 12 scoreless innings over the last dozen outings for Okajima, who has allowed three hits in that span. "He's been terrific," Francona said. "That's stating the obvious."

In the eighth inning, following Ortiz's single off lefthander Sean Henn, Manny Ramírez made it 7-3 with an opposite-field home run, his 50th homer against the Yankees.

Ramírez and Carl Yastrzemski are the only two players since 1960 who can make that claim.

Mike Timlin was touched for a solo home run by Jeter in the eighth to make it 7-4.

Jeter's home run ended a string of 13 2/3 scoreless innings by the Sox pen, which still has a 1.09 ERA (5 ER in 41 IP) over the last 17 games. But it was a temporary glitch. Timlin got an inning-ending double play out of A-Rod before Jonathan Papelbon closed out his perfect April (8 for 8 in saves) in the ninth, setting down the side after Giambi's double to preserve the win for Tavarez.

"We got Okajima throwing all that stuff," Cora said, "to J.C. [Romero], a lefty throwing 92 with sink. You got [Brendan] Donnelly cutting the ball and Joel [Pineiro] throwing sinkers and then Jonathan . . ."

Cora shook his head. "To tell you the truth, I saw Eric Gagne doing it in LA. I don't think anybody is going to save 80-something games in a row or whatever it was [84], but he's making it look the way Eric was doing it in LA."

And so the Sox keep winning, even though Ramírez, their cleanup hitter, just posted the worst month (.202) of his career since his rookie season. "I thought we had great energy today, even before the game," Francona said. "We have a day off tomorrow, we're trying to win a series, they got a pretty good pitcher going, and we played a complete game. And we had to."

In each of his last three starts, Tavarez has faced the opposition's ace -- Toronto's Roy Halladay twice and Wang yesterday -- and the Sox have come away with wins in two of those games.

Five of six against the reeling Bombers? Don't try to downplay that to Tavarez.

"It means a lot, man, you're beating one of the best teams in baseball," he said. "They don't have great pitching like last year, but that's a tough lineup. C'mon, man, you're facing the Yankees. It's not like you're facing the Pittsburgh Pirates. You're facing the Yankees. They spend big money for hitters.

"They're going to get better, so you've got take advantage now."

And so the Red Sox did. Let's see if the Yanks, or anyone else, can catch them. History would suggest the Sox won't give up their headstart too easily.