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ON BASEBALL

Sweeping praise from the Mariners

The West is out of the way. Back-to-back weekends against the Yankees loom, as well as home-and-home sets against the Chicago White Sox, the team with the best record in the American League since the All-Star break (24-13). But by completing a four-game sweep here of the Seattle Mariners with a shockingly easy 8-1 win yesterday afternoon -- the non-soap opera portion of the day -- the Red Sox could not have sent a more powerful message about their prospects for October.

"This is the best I've seen them play in the last three years," said Mariners second baseman Bret Boone, who unlike the uniformed set in the home clubhouse has yet to meet a microphone he couldn't handle. (At the All-Star Game in Chicago, Boone offered the startling opinion that commissioner Bud Selig was baseball's biggest problem.)

"They're a significantly different team," Boone said. "They played a great series. They beat us four days in a row. We didn't give them anything. No couldas or shouldas, they beat us four straight games."

For the Mariners, losing in Boston is not a novel experience. They've had a winning record at Fenway just once in the last 19 seasons. But this is a team that until mid-June had the best record in baseball and before arriving here had not been swept all season.

Here, they were outscored, 27-12, in four games, and outhomered, 7-0. Their starting pitchers gave up 20 earned runs in 20 innings, an ERA of 9.00, allowed 33 hits, including 4 home runs, and walked 17.

And while Sox fans could chuckle about Manny Ramirez's misadventure on the basepaths over the weekend, the Mariners' baserunning gaffe yesterday cost them any chance of ending Pedro Martinez's unbeaten string (12-0)against them.

The Mariners were still down just 3-0 after David Ortiz's two-run home run off Gil Meche in the third. John Olerud opened the fourth with a single, Mike Cameron walked, and Randy Winn lined a hit into right that looked like a sure double. That's what Winn thought, certainly, as he chugged into second, only to find Cameron still at the bag. Olerud, who should have scored easily, was still at third. Winn was tagged out, Martinez struck out Carlos Guillen and broke Ben Davis's bat on a fly to right, and the Mariners were done.

"I wanted to be able to tag up if the ball got caught," said Olerud, who may be the most fundamentally sound of all the Mariners but was caught in flagrante here. "When the ball dropped in, my weight was going back to second base. Just a bad read on my part."

The Mariners offered their fans little in the way of uplifting literature all weekend.

"Stuff happens," Boone said. "A little bit of a blunder, but that's the way the trip has been going.

"The thing is, we didn't play well. The other thing is, they played very well. They're hot, and they kept on swinging."

Boone singled out Ortiz, who drove in four runs yesterday with his 20th home run and two-run double, and went 6 for 16 in the series, with 3 home runs, a couple of doubles, 8 RBIs, and 5 runs.

"Ortiz beat us several times in this series."

On the pitch Ortiz took into the right-field seats, Meche said he would have been hard-pressed to get it more inside than he did.

"I watched the tape," he said. "If I'd thrown it in there anymore, he probably wouldn't have swung at it. I was trying to jam him. To be honest, I don't know how he hit it. But he's a strong guy, he stayed inside of the pitch and drove it. We can't buy a break. It's getting contagious. Somebody has got to step up and try to stop it, but I couldn't do it."

Ortiz broke it open with his two-run double, slicing an opposite-field hit on a curveball Meche left hanging.

"The Red Sox are playing exactly the opposite of us," Meche said. "They got a lot of breaks, and they got a lot of key hits in big situations. We're not doing that."

The Mariners look like a tired team. Ichiro Suzuki, trigger man of the offense, went just 2 for 15 in the series and didn't score a run. Boone didn't knock in a run in four games. Edgar Martinez, who is bound for the Hall of Fame if he can overcome bias toward the DH, went 0 for 5 Saturday and missed the last two games after fouling a ball off his left big toe.

Going home may help, but it's a short stay (six games) before the Mariners have to fly back to the East Coast for six more games. Former manager Lou Piniella and his Tampa Bay Devil Rays are awaiting at the start of each leg. "We got Skip tomorrow?" Boone said with a smile. "We're going to kick the [expletive] out of Skip."

For now, though, the Mariners are the ones being kicked around. And while the Sox' last 14 games are against relative cupcakes -- the D-Rays, Indians, Orioles, and D-Rays again -- the Mariners meet the A's six times in the season's last 10 games.

Piniella's replacement as Seattle manager, Bob Melvin, called a brief team meeting after the game, trying to rally his club.

"We just have to remember where we've come from," Melvin said bravely. "We've been in first place quite a while, which shows me we're the best team in our division. We've still got another run in us."

But not if you're using Boston as a barometer. Not even Melvin would dispute that.

"This is a good time to get out of here," he said.

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