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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Mission is clear: Just watch yourself

Think of it as straightening up the desk, signing off on all the paperwork, and making sure the bills are popped in the mail on time with the proper postmark.

It's all about taking care of business, people. The Red Sox have 10 games to play, and nothing else matters but getting their own house in order as the postseason looms.

No doubt, it was fun to scan the scoreboard and discover the Seattle Mariners had lost a 2-1, 10-inning heartbreaker to the Texas Rangers yesterday, allowing Boston to take on the increasingly dangerous Tampa Bay Devil Rays with a two-game lead in the wild-card race. But the bottom line as your Olde Towne Team limbers up for the stretch run is to take advantage of the things they can control.

It really is that simple. If the Red Sox keep winning, Seattle can't catch them.

So let's not split hairs on how they win, OK? Last night's 4-3 victory wasn't the masterpiece you'd submit to the league office for its classic archives, but with Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon still out of the lineup, and the American League's leading hitter, Bill Mueller, joining them in the dugout in the fifth with back spasms, this is no time to dwell on aesthetics.

Nor was it the time to split a series with Lou Piniella's cast of the young and restless. Every game is magnified in a pennant race, but this truly was one the Red Sox simply had to have.

"All the usual cliches apply this time of year," agreed Boston general manager Theo Epstein. "This was not a game we wanted to lose. It would have killed a lot of momentum. It would have made for a tough flight, and with the weather, we might be waiting another 48 hours before we play again."

As Boston jetted toward Cleveland last night, hoping to stay one step ahead of the wrath of Hurricane Isabel, they thanked knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who came up two outs shy of pitching his first complete game in five years, for calming the storm at Fenway.

Wakefield has long personified the workmanlike approach that players and managers alike appreciate. In this outing, he twice escaped jams of men on second and third with no outs with minimal damage.

Wakefield was so steady, manager Grady Little sent him out to pitch the ninth. But, after a dropped pop fly by second baseman Todd Walker in the shallow outfield (he mistakenly thought Nomar Garciaparra was calling him off the ball), a fielder's choice, and a single by catcher Toby Hall, Wakefield reluctantly handed the ball over to closer BK Kim to close it out.

"Wake was outstanding," saluted Walker. "When it's all said and done, this game is still about pitching."

Walker, who banged out two hits last night, said his teammates understood taking three of four from Tampa Bay was critical.

"It's huge," he said. "You can definitely take this team lightly, based on their record [60-92]. But we battled 'em pretty good. If we can get one more game, then we'll be up 3 1/2 with one week to go. If we do that, we're in good shape. But nobody in here is taking anything for granted right now."

That may be true, but every player in the Boston clubhouse knows if they can't outlast the Mariners, who still have to duke it out with division leader Oakland in the final weeks, while the Sox play also-rans Cleveland, Baltimore, and yes, Tampa Bay one more three-game series, they'll have some explaining to do.

At least one guy, the ever quotable Kevin Millar, was willing to peek ahead to the possibilities of a playoff run.

"You have to know how to win one-run games like this," he said. "We've won a lot of games by scoring 10 runs, but you have to be able to pull out the low-scoring games in the playoffs."

Here's hoping Boston's defense shores up in time for that second season. The wind was blowing in at a strong, pre-hurricane rate, but foul weather didn't account for the blooper-filled antics of the third inning.

Sox fans gasped in disbelief as Garciaparra flubbed what surely would have been a double-play grounder by Carl Crawford, planting men on second and third with no outs. Rocco Baldelli sent another grounder Garciaparra's way, and this time Nomar scooped up the ball, and caught Crawford off the bag, trying to scamper from second to third. Nomar held the ball, and appeared to have him nailed on the pickle. Instead, Crawford dived back to second, and was called safe as Julio Lugo scrambled home.

It might have been declared the most bizarre play of the evening if not for what followed. Travis Lee roped a single to right field, and Crawford started running to third. He heeded the stop sign and held up, but Baldelli, his head down, streaked around second and kept on going, oblivious third base was already taken. Baldelli slid nicely into the bag, but when he stood up to dust himself off, he saw Crawford standing there as well. Mueller quickly tagged Baldelli for the out. Wakefield then coaxed Aubrey Huff into an inning-ending double play.

Asked about the embarrassing gaffe on the basepaths, Crawford answered, "I don't know what happened with that, but I was surprised to see it."

You too, huh, Carl?

Last night surely had its share of distressing moments (what else would you expect in these parts?), but, when it was over, it was the redoubtable Manny Ramirez who accounted for the winning margin, on the strength of his 35th home run over the Wall in the sixth. We all know Manny is alternately maddening and lovable. We also know he can hit. In fact, don't look now, but the Red Sox player who might well walk away with the AL batting title is Ramirez, not Mueller. Whether this means anything to either of them is difficult to decipher.

The only thing on the minds of the boys in the Red Sox clubhouse is getting to the finish line, the sooner the better. The bullpen still looks a little shaky, and you wish Nomar was hitting better, and you hope Nixon and Damon and Mueller get better -- quickly.

But, amid that little bit of clutter, the desk is neater. The papers are in a stack. The check is in the mail. The business appears to be in good hands.

Jackie MacMullan's e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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