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BOB RYAN

There is no cause for alarm

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- I suppose you want to know what's going on.

Baseball's going on. The Big 162. The ebb and the flow.

They go to Minnesota, drop three in a row, and you want someone to hijack their plane and drop them off in the middle of the Pacific Ocean somewhere.

They go to Atlanta, win a game, and then another and another and pretty soon they've won 12 straight. You want to bring 'em all home for dinner, maybe put 'em in your will.

They come here to play the Devil Rays, who are better than you think, and they lose three. Oops. Call the lawyer. They're out of the will.

It's baseball; that's all.

``It's a combination of them making the pitches and us not swinging the bats very well," said Mike Lowell. ``During the season you're going to have your little spurts. When we won 12 in a row, everybody was swinging the bat very well. Now, no one is."

Baseball. It's a looong season.

``There were a lot of balls hit at people in situations that could have extended innings," pointed out Jason Varitek.

Baseball. This is a sport where someone could throw a perfect game with 27 line-drive outs. It can be cruelly unfair in the short run. But when you go out there 162 times, all that stuff, all those 420-foot outs and broken-bat singles will even out and the better teams will win far more than they lose.

You guys are supposed to be seasoned fans. That's what I keep hearing. But the game isn't even in the fourth inning and here's this e-mail railing about Jason Johnson. What am I supposed to say? He's here for a reason, and in case you didn't know the reason, Terry Francona put it in perspective. ``The reason he's here is that he was having a tough time," reminded the skipper.

In two starts with the Sox, it's gotten even tougher. In eight innings he's been reached for 13 hits and 10 runs (nine earned). As a bonus, he was the victim of a straight steal of home by the electrifying Carl Crawford.

In another time and place, the Sox might have been able to overcome Johnson by unloading the lumber against some hapless enemy hurler. But last night all they could manage against Tim Corcoran and three relievers were four hits, one of which was Varitek's ninth homer of the season.

I know what you're asking: ``Who's Tim Corcoran?"

The tale is fairly simple. He was brought up from Durham June 15 when Tyler Walker was placed on the disabled list. He's been a reliever most of his career. He has twice been selected in the Rule V draft, first by the Orioles from the Mets and then by the Devil Rays. This means that more than a few people thought he had something to offer, but few thought of him as a starter.

But there he was last night, peering at the batters from the stretch all night long. The last guy I saw start a major league game from the stretch was Mike Maddux, many years ago. It just looks downright weird, but nobody's going to mess with him because he's now made six appearances for the Devil Rays (three starts) and his ERA is 1.64.

``He ran the fastball in very efficiently on the righthand hitters, and he ran it in hard," declared Francona. ``And he threw the breaking ball away very effectively."

``He has pretty good stuff," confirmed Lowell. ``He was mixing two-seamers and four-seamers."

The Red Sox did hit some balls hard. Manny Ramírez ended the first inning with a 6-4-3 scorcher that shortstop Julio Lugo fielded on one hop moving to his left. Varitek put a charge into one for his homer, and the captain also hit a hard comebacker that caromed off Corcoran and wound up as a 1-6-3 in the scorebook.

On the flip side, Rocco Baldelli had an RBI single on a high chopper that just made it over Johnson's head. He had another RBI on an infield single.

It's called baseball.

The team knows all about the ebb and the flow, and no one's panicking. But the matter of that fifth starter is still on the table. You must wonder how many times the Sox plan on running Johnson out there. The man is 55-96 lifetime, 3-10 this season, and there would appear to be enough body of evidence to suggest that he is not the answer to their problem. But until Theo Epstein can provide him with an alternative, Francona must send Johnson to the mound.

The skipper did his best to put on a happy face.

``You see flashes," Francona said. ``When he gets that two-seamer down, he gets ground balls, and that's what he needs to do. He's just got to be consistent."

Fine. Sounds reasonable. But the man is 55-96 lifetime and his current ERA is 6.35. Those numbers don't merely speak. They reverberate.

Meanwhile, you must give some credit to the Other Guys. Once upon a time, it was a pleasure to come here. The Devil Rays were the Devil Rays, and all that. If you came here for four games, you knew you'd be leaving with at least three wins. But now they've got a team that can hit, and if you happen to catch them when it's Scott Kazmir's turn to pitch, you may be in for a painful evening. That was the case Monday. What you don't expect is some Rule V guy holding you to four hits and two runs over 6 2/3 innings.

So now the object is to get one tonight and get out of Dodge. We know this much: Francona won't be doing any Tropicana commercials soon after seeing a ball off the bat of Kevin Youkilis hit a catwalk above the field and turn into an out when Crawford it. That brought back bitter memories of the home run Big Papi lost to a speaker in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago.

``At some point Major League Baseball has got to [do something]. This putt-putt golf [stuff] has got to go," Francona growled.

I promise you they'll all be looking back at these three nights at some future date and laugh. They'll joke about having no chance with Kazmir, about the Youkilis ball hitting the catwalk, and about Crawford stealing second, third, and home in the same game. Right now they're being humbled, and not necessarily by the Devil Rays.

Nope, right now the oppressor is baseball. But don't worry. There are 80 games left. Leave 'em in the will. They'll be just fine.

Bob Ryan's e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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