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A healing process

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Deep down, the Red Sox really want to win the division.

Anyone who plays professional sports wants to finish first. You are taught at an early age it's not cool to finish second, though the wild card is a consolation prize you'll take. Sometimes, as the Red Sox did in 2004, you'll take it all the way to a championship.

Although it's maddening sometimes to hear manager Terry Francona or general manager Theo Epstein settling for the wild card in the interest of getting players healthy for the postseason, the sentiment is understandable.

The Red Sox know they're going to make the playoffs, and players like Mike Lowell think they should celebrate the clinching, which could come after tonight's game (if Detroit loses and Boston wins).

"Of course, we want to win the division," said David Ortiz, who blasted a three-run homer in the Sox' 8-1 win over the Devil Rays last night. "But what sense does it make to put that kind of pressure on our plate? Win the division, watch the Yankees, all that stuff. The important thing now is that we get healthy and finish strong."

Ortiz said the players had an informal get-together to chat about having fun and forgetting about division talk.

Last night's win was big for team morale. The Sox gained a game because the Yankees were beaten by the Blue Jays, 5-4, in 14 innings at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees were shut down by Roy Halladay (an earned run in 8 2/3 innings) but mounted a ninth-inning comeback. The Yankees had to go to Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, but the Jays waited them out and Gregg Zaun finished them off with a home run off Brian Bruney in the 14th.

The Yankees already have conjured up ghosts of the great Red Sox collapse of 1978 - and seeing Devil Rays special adviser Don Zimmer, Boston's manager that year, on the field before the Sox game was spooky.

One loss to Toronto is not a fall, but the Red Sox lead was back to 2 1/2 games. The win came at a time when the Sox are playing a weaker Tampa Bay team, while the Yankees are playing what might be their toughest opponent the rest of the season. If the Red Sox are going to gain breathing room, this would be a good weekend to do it. The Yankees will be playing Tampa Bay and Baltimore to finish the season while the Red Sox have Oakland and Minnesota.

The Sox don't want to take first place like they did in 1995 and then be swept in the first round of the playoffs.

Then-manager Kevin Kennedy knows that all too well.

He is the last Sox manager to win the American League East Division title, but his team was swept by the Indians when Mo Vaughn and Jose Canseco went a combined 0 for 27.

"I'll guarantee you that Terry Francona wants to win that division," said Kennedy. "I just think you want to make a statement. 'Yeah, we're banged up, yeah, we've got some guys who are tired, but we're going to show why we're the best team in baseball and we're going to win this thing.' That's the kind of statement I'm sure the Red Sox want to make. They have been the best team all year. To lose it at the end? Sure, they'll make the playoffs and we've seen the wild-card team win it. They won it that way.

"But from my years managing against the Red Sox in Texas and then the years I managed in Boston, the advantage they have with a home-field advantage is immeasurable. The confidence of your team goes sky-high when you know you have the home-field advantage at Fenway Park."

Kennedy recalls the '95 Sox wrapped up the division Sept. 20, then noticed the team went into a malaise "where we lost four out of five. I called a team meeting in Milwaukee and I said we have to keep up our intensity. I know guys are tired and we're going to be resting some guys, but keep playing hard. We finished strong [winning three of four] and then we just ran into the Indians and we couldn't hit their pitching."

Lowell said it's important to finish strong, that everyone wants to finish first, but not to get wrapped up in how everyone else is doing.

Ditto Alex Cora, who said, "The most important thing is we've got to get healthy. We don't have our best lineup out there right now. So if we can win without it, we feel good about ourselves if we can win without our best. I think people mistake our attitude because we do want the division, but we just can't make it the be-all end-all. We have to play each game and hopefully win each game. At the end, we hope we've won the division."

But a loss last night would have made things more painful. Yankee fans tend to rise when their beloved team inches closer, but are very quiet when they fall back. The Sox needed to end their four-game losing skid. They needed to right all of the things that have gone wrong lately.

"Beating [Scott] Kazmir is big for us because he's had our number," Ortiz said. "We've run into all kinds of good pitching in Toronto and now this is a chance for us to end that and maybe pick up where we left off a few days ago. Just go out and play and don't worry about the division. But we want the division. Of course."

Of course, they do.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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