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ON BASEBALL

Hoping they're not in for devil of a time

On paper, the last two weeks of the season should be one great giant slalom for the Red Sox. They play seven games against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team 30 games under .500 this season and losers of 100-plus games in each of the last two seasons. They play three games in Cleveland against the Indians, a team 20 games under .500 with no one left from their glory days of the '90s except the guy banging the bass drum out in the bleachers.

They play four more games against the Baltimore Orioles, a team 14 games under .500 ending its sixth straight losing season.

A schedule like that, and it's a wonder no one has yet accused Bud Selig of manipulating the Sox into the playoffs, the same way the commissioner was accused of hand-delivering the franchise to John W. Henry, Larry Lucchino, and Tom Werner. The Sox are 40-23 (.635) against below-.500 teams, 21-8 (.724) at home.

But by now, we all should know better. The Devil Rays, who arrive here for the first of four tonight, are the same team that beat the Sox on Opening Day with Carl Crawford's walkoff three-run home run off Chad Fox, and embarrassed the Sox here, 15-9, in their last game at Fenway, July 24.

"We haven't played any easy games all year," catcher Jason Varitek said after yesterday's 7-2 whipping by the White Sox in the rubber match of their three-game set.

"I can honestly say that, and it doesn't get any easier."

Ahead are no pitchers of the caliber of Bartolo Colon or Mark Buerhle, who handled the Sox with relative ease this weekend. Righthander Jorge Sosa, who starts against the Sox tonight, is a converted outfielder who in the first week of the season gave up two home runs to Kevin Millar (who could use someone to put a ball on a tee for him to hit).

Overall, the Devil Rays' ERA against the Sox is 6.38, the biggest reason the Sox have beaten the D-Rays in eight of 12 meetings. They've used 24 pitchers this season, tying a club record, and of the 14 pitchers on the roster now, all but one are 28 years old or younger.

But one American League scout who has seen plenty of the Devil Rays in the last couple of weeks, including their win over the Yankees yesterday that broke a five-game losing streak, warns that no one should consider them cupcakes.

And that begins with Sosa. "He has a very good body and a very good arm," the scout said. "He's made good strides. He's real tough on righthanded-hitting clubs. He has a good slider and good velocity. Their whole starting staff since the beginning of August has been working quicker and better. They've bought into throwing strikes, getting their fastballs over for strikes rather than trying to throw them through a wall.

"They hit a wall in New York, because the Yankees are more experienced hitters, and I think the same thing is going to happen in Boston. They still walk too many people, which isn't good in New York or Boston, or good in the American League. Walks and inexperience are their major problems. Their pitchers might give up four runs in an inning where a more experienced guy might cut it off at one.

"But they're a fun club to watch. Those three in the outfield [Rocco Baldelli, Crawford, and Aubrey Huff] can really hit. Crawford and Baldelli can really run, and Huff has to be considered in the top 10 in the league offensively. [Travis] Lee is having a good year, [shortstop Julio] Lugo has solidified their defense, and they have a manager, Lou Piniella, who has them playing hard for 27 outs.

"By the start of next year, they'll be a lot better than they are now, just from experience. But I don't want to say they're better than they were at the start of the season, because they were very tough to play then, too."

No other outfield in baseball has more hits than the Devil Rays' trio, which has 516. The Braves' All-Star threesome of Gary Sheffield, Andruw Jones, and Chipper Jones is next with 480. Baldelli, the 21-year-old rookie center fielder from Rhode Island, also leads the American League in assists with 13; only eight rookies in the last 73 years have led the league in assists, including the brothers DiMaggio, Joe and Dominic.

"Baseball people didn't need to be told this outfield led the majors in hits to know how good they are," the scout said.

The Devil Rays have made just two errors in their last 16 games, so they're not giving their opponents any extra outs.

"It's hard to stop their running game," the scout said of a team that has been successful in 16 of 20 stolen-base attempts against the Sox this season. "It's hard to stop their outfielders. Their starting pitching has been much better. Their overall inexperience and lack of a deep lineup are the source of their problems -- their inexperience shows with a mistake on the bases or a key defensive mistake, but after 27 outs, even if they come away with an L, you're saying `Wow.' "

By the time the Devil Rays leave, the Red Sox would prefer to say "Whew" than "Wow." Just don't count on it.

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