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RED SOX 8, DEVIL RAYS 2

Sharp turn

Sox look dandy, end 2-game skid

As if reaching for the 40-regular suit off the rack, the Red Sox last night plucked the reliable and ready-to-beat Tampa Bay Devil Rays for 14 hits and pulled on a comfortable, relaxed-fit 8-2 win before a full house of 33,389 at Fenway Park.

Now, if that sounds easy, then it was just that - thanks as much to the pitching of Derek Lowe (8 innings, 4 hits, 2 runs) as to the resurgent power of many familiar Red Sox faces, including David Ortiz (No. 27) and Manny Ramirez (No. 34), who homered.

If they keep up this beat over the final 13 games of the season, you're going to like the way they look - guaranteed.

But before booking playoff parties or springing for the $3,000 plasma TVs to watch the Olde Towne Team in the World Series, perhaps Red Sox Nation should heed the words of catcher Jason Varitek when he says, ``We've got to concentrate on playing good baseball - and not worry about whether we are supposed to beat 'em.''

The victory, which followed two straight losses to the playoff-hopeful White Sox, was the 87th of the season for the Bosox. Combined with Seattle's 6-4 loss to Texas, it also gave them some breathing room in the wild-card race, lifting them 11/2 games over the Mariners.

The ``supposed to beat'' in the equation here comes from the perception that the Sox are left only with a bunch of clay pigeons to blast out of the sky on their way to the playoffs. Witness the D-Rays, respectable under manager Lou Piniella, yes, but still a grim 59-90 (better than only the Tigers and in a faltering footrace with the Padres). The Sox have a half-dozen left with Tampa Bay, plus three with Cleveland and four with Baltimore.

The light lifting may have become all the lighter last night when it was learned that Baltimore's best hitter, Melvin Mora, will be lost for the season with a partial tear of a ligament in his left knee. If it gets any easier for the Sox, it will look like T-ball.

For all the offense that would back him - including the two homers and an accompanying five doubles - Lowe turned in a sinkerballing masterpiece reminiscent of his no-hitter here against the D-Rays last spring. He didn't give up a hit (Marlon Anderson's single) until there were two outs in the fifth, his bedeviling sinker frustrating one hitter after another. He exited after eight, having picked up 17 of his 24 outs on ground balls. Until Anderson's single, not one ball hit by Tampa Bay had left the infield.

Given Lowe's near-hypnotic hold on the D-Rays, Ramirez could have had fellow outfielders Johnny Damon and Gabe Kapler over at the Ritz for a libation for the first five innings.

``He was outstanding,'' said Sox manager Grady Little, praising his starter. ``It looks like he's reaching the top of his game at the right time.''

Long gone and hard to remember are the early days of '03 when Lowe, a goat in '01 and a hero in '02, was a lackluster 3-3.

``This is the time of the year you want to peak,'' said Lowe (16-6), further noting, ``People don't remember the early part of the year.''

There's nothing quite like a 14-hit deluge to make everyone remember that Sox batters are capable of overcoming whatever pitching problems might arise. While Lowe was snatching the bat out of so many hands, his teammates were clubbing their way through three pitchers, including starter Jorge Sosa (5-11).

Ortiz began the hammering, launching his homer off the base of a left-field light tower for a 1-0 lead in the second. An Ortiz double in the fourth and a Kapler roller knocked in two more runs for a 3-0 lead and a Kevin Millar single up the middle made it a four-run lead in the fifth.

``A typical game for our offensive ball club,'' said Little.

The night's only scare, albeit slight, came in the sixth when Rocco Baldelli doubled with two out and Aubrey Huff (he with Dick Stuart-like power) lined a rope into the Boston bullpen for homer No. 31 and RBIs 101 and 102.

The Sox kept up their metronomic power game over Innings 6, 7, and 8 for four more runs, the most dramatic rip that of Ramirez, whose seventh-inning homer cleared The Wall, the Canadian border, and the North Pole.

``He swung it good tonight,'' said Little, pondering whether Ramirez could be ready to display a ferocious late kick at the plate these last weeks. ``Sure would love it if he did it.''

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