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Easy call: Race is a runaway

PHILADELPHIA -- It's OK to say it. Don't worry about jinxing them. The 2005 Red Sox are going to win the American League East. By a landslide. Come late September, this is going to look like Secretariat at the Belmont in 1973.

After looking up at the Orioles for two frustrating months, the Sox moved into first place Friday night and they are there to stay. Stop worrying about the Yankees, Orioles, and Jays. It's not even going to be close.

''We're going to the Series, boys!" shouted Kevin Millar in the locker room after yesterday's 7-1 thrashing of the Phillies (the National League really stinks this year, no?). ''We're back! The [expletive] Sox are on a roll!"

''This is the place we thought we'd get to," added Johnny Damon. ''It was just a matter of time. This team is playing great and I'm proud of what we've accomplished."

The burst of optimism that consumes Red Sox Nation at this hour (truly, this is an alternate universe) is owed to something more than a season-high six-game winning streak.

The Franconamen turned things around two weeks ago when warrior Tim Wakefield took the ball and stopped the bleeding on the ivy in the Wrigley finale. The Sox have won 11 of 12 since that night and their starting pitching in that span has been sensational.

In the dandy dozen since June 12, Sox starters are 9-0 with a 1.77 ERA. The fab five have held the opposition below the Mendoza Line for a fortnight. Matt Clement's victory over the Phillies yesterday makes him 9-1. Would the Sox still bid for Carl Pavano or Brad Radke ahead of their Lincolnesque righty?

It gets even better for the pitching staff. The Sox have five solid starters and a first-place standing despite the fact that Curt Schilling has been on the shelf most of the year. The Big Blowhard is due back in the rotation early next month. Is any other team going to get a midseason acquisition better than Schilling?

Meanwhile, as usual, the Red Sox lead the majors in hitting (.285), runs (409), and on-base percentage (.360). They've scored six or more runs in 12 of their last 14 games. Manny Ramirez is back to his Jimmie Foxx self. Boston's catcher, center fielder, and DH are having All-Star seasons. Bill Mueller (two doubles yesterday) appears to have returned to his batting-champ form.

The Sox also have Earl Weaver's proverbial deep depth: John Olerud is better than Doug Mientkiewicz and Jay Payton is an upgrade over Gabe Kapler. Boston's bullpen could be a sore spot, but Mike Timlin -- who should be an All-Star -- can step into the closer role if cranky Keith Foulke can't get going.

Even Theo Epstein's minions are on a roll. They have proof that Mark Bellhorn somehow contributes more to a lineup than Ryne Sandberg, and yesterday Bellhorn caught a Jim Thome line drive while standing in shallow right field. BlackBerries were buzzing from Brookline to Kansas.

Here's another clue for you all: The Sox are in first place even though at the end of yesterday's games they had played more road games than any other team in baseball. Boston plays 49 of its first 88 games away from home, which means they will be at home down the stretch. The Sox play 24 of their final 36 at Fenway, where they are a major league-best 77-36 since the start of last season.

''Most of us are from warm-weather states or warm-weather countries," said Damon. ''We've only been comfortable for a couple of games at Fenway this year, but now it's warming up. This has been a nice run, but I think home is going to make us even better."

Elsewhere in the AL East, the rabbits from Baltimore are finally taking that predictable plunge into the great middle. A round of applause for the Orioles for staying in first from April 22-June 24, but sooner or later the pitching mound was going to be a heap of trouble for the Birds. They did well to stay on top for as long as they did after losing catcher Javy Lopez last month.

And then we have the unfortunate, spoiled sons of Steinbrenner. The Boss assembled baseball's first $200 million roster but as of this morning, the Yankees are 37-37. There is no sign of life, no alternatives in the farm system, and no one who can be moved. They're just a couple of injuries away from morphing into the Horace Clarke Yankees of 1965-66.

Twice this season the Yankees have enjoyed stretches of dominance that justified their paychecks, but for most of the year they have looked uneven, uninterested, and old. They pose a threat only if the Red Sox succumb to the irrational fears of history, and this Boston bunch buried all that stuff for good in October 2004.

So there. No worries about the wild card this year. Start lining up the rotation for October. The Red Sox are going to finish on top in the American League East for the first time since 1995. They are going to break the string of seven consecutive second-place finishes behind the Yankees. And they are going to win by a wide margin.

Don't look for a lot of strong quotes to support this theory. The Bruins of the 1970s and the Celtics of the mid '80s were probably the only local teams bold enough to say, ''We're just better than everybody else."

But the once and future idiots know. They are playing with a confidence and comfort that come only when you know you are good and you know the other guys fear you.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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