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RED SOX 14, A'S 5

Aceless wonders

Resurgent Sox go to bat for fill-in Fossum

Since Johnny Damon has 4-year-old twins, he was perfectly suited to capture the essence of the dilemma in language everyone from Mensa members to Sesame Street faithful could fathom. With a feverishly-ill Pedro Martinez scratched from one of his most significant starts of the season and the Red Sox in jeopardy of tumbling a troubling three games behind the A's in the sprint for the wild card, Damon put the gravity of last night's showdown with Oakland in the proper perspective.

"We need to win," he declared. "If not, we're in deep doo-doo."

No need for the diaper brigade. Rising from the muck of their recent slide from wild-card supremacy, the Sox parlayed a respectable emergency start by Casey Fossum and the rebirth of their dormant offense into a reinvigorating 14-5 victory before a negativity-free 34,844 at Fenway Park. The triumph lifted the Sox within one game of Oakland in the wild-card standings on the eve of their four-game series against the American League West-leading Mariners.

"I see this win as a difference maker," Sox manager Grady Little said. "We could have been just slipping a bit as far as remembering how good we were, but I think this win will get us back on the right track."

Fossum, making only his second start since early June, was no Martinez. But he was good enough, keeping the Sox on course for a badly-needed victory by allowing five runs on eight hits and three walks over 5 1/3 innings before the bullpen rebounded from two straight nights of heartache to finish off Billy Beane's crew.

"It was the biggest game of the year," Fossum said, "especially because we were playing the A's."

While Martinez rested at home with a severe throat inflammation, Fossum was good enough thanks largely to the resurgent Sox offense. Led by "The Big Dog," as Kevin Millar likes to call Manny Ramirez, the Sox rolled up their most runs since a 14-7 thrashing of the Rangers July 29 in Texas. Ramirez slugged his 30th homer of the season, launched a pair of run-scoring doubles, and walked to help produce another run as he emerged from a 2-for-16 skid.

But he had plenty of help as the Sox pounded 12 hits and benefited from 10 walks, including seven from Oakland's rookie starter Rich Harden. David Ortiz swatted a three-run homer, and manager Grady Little's decision to return Todd Walker to the second spot in the order and drop Bill Mueller back to the eighth hole also paid dividends. Walker delivered a two-run single and Mueller a run-scoring double while Trot Nixon also knocked in two runs.

"This win was big for us not only because we sent them off with a loss," Walker said, "but because we've got a lot of confidence going against Seattle."

By the ninth inning, the mood in the Fens was so celebratory that the Sox and their fans paused to watch a video on the giant scoreboard in center field of the Saugus Little League team storming from behind in extra innings to clinch a spot in the US finals of the World Series.

"That was a little bit of a crazier game than this one was," Damon said.

Not that the Sox game was chopped liver. Not with the stakes as high as they were. After losing 9 of 13 -- costing them the wild-card lead and plunging from three games out in the AL East to 7 1/2 back -- salvaging the finale of their three games against the A's was paramount for the Sox. The options were closing within one game of the A's or sinking into deep doo-doo.

For Fossum, the stakes were particularly high since his opportunities to remind the Sox why they started the season with him in the starting rotation have been scarce. It hardly helped that he stuck himself in a quick hole, letting Mark Ellis double off the Wall leading off the game before Jose Guillen sacrificed Ellis to third and Eric Chavez knocked him in with a sacrifice fly.

But his teammates understood why he might be a bit rusty.

"That's probably the most difficult thing to do as a pitcher," Walker said of preparing for an emergency start. "He's got to do all the things he normally would do in four days in a number of hours."

The Sox wasted no time picking Fossum up. After Walker greeted Harden with a one-out single in the bottom of the first and Ramirez walked, Ortiz scorched a 94-mile-an-hour heater into the Oakland bullpen to stake Fossum to a lead the Sox never relinquished. The homer was Ortiz's first in 40 at-bats over two weeks.

After Mueller tripled home Nixon in the second to make it 4-1, the A's clawed back to within 4-3 before Ramirez & Co. batted around in the third inning and scored four more times to put it out of reach.

In the end, the A's left town after taking two of three. But few victories have inspired the Sox more.

"I think it's kind of a turning point," Little said. "We felt like we could have won all three games, but it didn't turn out that way. But winning this last one was a big push for us."

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