OAKLAND, Calif. -- Terry Francona remembers the dull ache of hopelessness, the sad feeling of managing a team that was destined to go nowhere in October but home. He guided the Phillies through four miserable Septembers in his only experience as a big league skipper before the Red Sox handed him the keys to their team -- and their dreams.
"The one thing I hated more than anything was looking across the field and seeing a team that was in the pennant race when you were over there trying to be the spoiler and they had a reason to go out there," Francona said. "I remember just being so jealous. It was a bad feeling."
Imagine how the adrenaline coursed through Francona's veins last night as the Sox seized a second straight game from the playoff-hungry A's to maintain their four-game lead over the Angels in the wild-card race and stay within 2 1/2 games of the division-leading Yankees with 25 games to play.
"Showing up this time of year," he said, "and having each thing you do mean so much is so exciting."
The surging Sox provided the latest excitement as they turned a solid outing from Derek Lowe and plenty of pop from their Johnny Damon-led lineup into a 7-1 cakewalk over the A's before 29,659 at Network Associates Coliseum. With their 19th victory in 21 games, the Sox clinched this three-game series and will send Pedro Martinez to the mound in the finale tonight against Tim Hudson.
Not a bad feeling.
"We're getting to that point where we feel like we have an opportunity to win every day," said Gabe Kapler, who homered and singled, knocking in three runs.
Lowe, who improved to 14-10, propelled the Sox to their ninth victory in their last 10 road games by rationing the A's their lone run on five hits and four walks over 6 1/3 innings before he departed -- without a gesture -- to a cascade of boos from the frustrated legions from the Bay area. The A's have lost seven of eight this year to the Sox, who came back from a two-game deficit last October to steal the best-of-five Division Series from them.
Lowe, who finished off the A's last year in the playoffs, improved to 7-1 over his last 10 starts in his comeback from a subpar first half.
"There's a lot of satisfaction, especially the way the team's playing," Lowe said. "The other four days [in the first half] I would imagine the guys felt like they had a chance and then they said, `Oh, God, here's Derek's day, let's see what we can do.' It's good to have the team's confidence back."
Damon, returning from a four-game absence (sprained right pinkie), sparked the Sox attack by smacking a home run leading off the game. The last person Oakland starter Mark Redman likely wanted to face at that point was Damon, who was batting .588 (10 for 17) with a home run against him. Damon whacked Redman's second pitch for his 15th homer of the season and the 15th of his career leading off a game.
"When he comes in the game and takes a swing like that," Francona said, "it just energized the whole dugout."
Damon said, "It was definitely a great relief because you really don't want to mess anything up after the way Dave Roberts was doing such a great job."
Kapler followed Damon's lead by clubbing a two-run homer in the second inning and adding an RBI single in a game-breaking, three-run sixth inning. Orlando Cabrera provided the other big hit in the sixth, a two-run double.
On a night when the slugging tandem of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz went a combined 1 for 8, Kevin Millar chipped in as he singled, doubled, homered, and walked, scoring three times. Jason Varitek doubled to extend his hitting streak to 13 games and scored on Cabrera's double.
"Every night, we're patting somebody else on the back," Francona said. "That's how winning teams play. If somebody doesn't get a hit with one out, it seems like somebody else gets a hit with two outs. We're playing pretty consistent baseball right now."
After Lowe's departure, the bullpen did the rest as Alan Embree recorded the final two outs in the seventh, Mike Myers dispatched the A's in order in the eighth, and Curtis Leskanic did the honors in the ninth.
But Lowe led the way, with a major assist from his defense, particularly Cabrera at short, Bill Mueller at third, and Ramirez in left field. Mueller went horizontal to make a dandy backhanded stab of a line drive by Mark McLemore in the third inning and scooped a hard one-hopper by Damian Miller with none out and runners at the corners in the fourth to start a 5-4-3 double play. Though Erubiel Durazo scored on the play, the Sox were pleased to escape the mess with a 3-1 lead.
"It's got to be a huge confidence boost," Kapler said, "to know the guys are going to make the plays behind you."
"As easy as the game may have looked, it was a battle the whole time," Lowe said. "But the defense was unbelievable. They bailed me out so many times."
The way Francona saw it, the Sox bailed each other out.
"Our defense made our pitcher look good and our pitcher made our defense look good," he said. "We did a great job."
Leading, 3-1, the Sox broke the game open in the sixth after Varitek ignited the rally by ripping a double to left-center. Redman aggravated matters for himself by walking Millar, and Cabrera made him pay by lacing a two-run double to left-center, making it 5-1. A batter later, Kapler struck again, singling to knock in Cabrera and stake Lowe to a 6-1 lead.
The RBI single by Kapler marked the third time in three games he had delivered with two outs and runners in scoring position. But he is expected to sit tonight as Roberts faces Hudson.
"The depth we have on this team is incredible." Damon said.
Francona could hardly be more excited.