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ON BASEBALL

Give-and-take gets job done for Damon

BALTIMORE -- Shave the beard. Keep the beard. Cut the hair. Keep the hair. All kinds of emotions were going through Johnny Damon's floppy-haired head the past two days. Was his "The Passion of The Christ" look in any way responsible for his 0-for-9 start to the season? Well, now he has a new way to look at his new look, after he went 5 for 5 during last night's 10-3 Red Sox victory over the Orioles.

"It's slowly growing on me," said Kevin Millar, who had not been a fan of the hair. "It was his night. Basically, he had a hell of a game."

The Sox' leadoff hitter had been struggling both at the plate and in the field. Aside from going hitless in the first two games, he had allowed a drifting ball to land between him and Gabe Kapler in right-center field on Opening Day, then had collided with Millar in the outfield Tuesday afternoon, causing Millar to leave the game with a bloody nose. Last night, that all changed. Not only did he get a hit in every at-bat, score two runs, drive in two, and steal a base, but he also made a sparkling play in center field, leaping high against the fence and reaching over to rob David Segui of a three-run homer in the sixth inning.

"Five hits is nice," said Damon, "but a great catch keeps your team way ahead."

Even the Orioles crowd appreciated the effort, giving Damon an ovation, which he acknowledged with a wave of his glove and a doffing of his cap. It was like a movie star making a curtain call. Damon deserved it. A great play at a big moment. It prevented a 10-3 rout from suddenly becoming a 10-6 contest.

"Everyone got to see what the Red Sox are all about," said Damon, who lifted his batting average from .000 to .357. "Look at [David] Ortiz, with that home run. That's what happens when you bear down. It gets contagious."

These are the Red Sox we remember from '03.

These are the Red Sox who last season put fear in opposing pitching to a tune of 961 runs, 371 doubles, 238 home runs, a .491 slugging percentage, and a .360 on-base percentage.

There might be more emphasis on pitching now, with Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke on board, and with Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon on the mend, but the Sox showed last night that on a given night their offense can explode. A seven-run second inning put them in control, and Ortiz added a three-run shot in the sixth.

Pitching wins, but hitting is entertaining. The Red Sox didn't quite get to the World Series last season, but you had to enjoy the offensive fireworks, which made every night at Fenway the Fourth of July. Last night at Camden Yards was a reprise of that explosiveness.

Some awful defense by the Orioles aided the Sox' second-inning outburst. An indecisive play by shortstop Miguel Tejada, who pumped to third base before throwing late to first, allowed Pokey Reese to reach on an infield single and seemed to unsettle Baltimore's young starter, Kurt Ainsworth. And when the next batter, Damon, lined a single to left, Larry Bigbie's throw to the plate beat Mark Bellhorn -- but catcher Javy Lopez dropped the ball. Two runs scored. Later in the inning, center fielder Luis Matos turned a routine fly ball by Manny Ramirez into a two-run double, losing the ball in the lights.

The catalyst of the Sox offense's retro look was Damon, who had five hits for the fourth time in his career, the last time being last June 27 against the Marlins. Was it the balmy temperatures (75 degrees at game time) or something else that triggered some pop in his bat and pride in his stride?

Whatever the impetus, Damon's breakout performance was a welcome addition to a Sox lineup that's missing Garciaparra and Nixon. Manager Terry Francona believes his leadoff man can set the tone, allowing the hitters behind him to see more fastballs. Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli, who saw a lot of Sox offense as a Yankees coach last season, said, "You can't stop their offense. You've got to get the first couple of guys off base."

Damon has not set any goals for stolen bases. He figures the offense will dictate how much he needs to run. As for his defense, he takes great pride in his ability to get to fly balls. Over the past couple of days, though, he felt out of sorts. Some felt Damon was still a little gun shy after suffering a concussion in a horrible collision with Damian Jackson in Game 5 of the AL Divisional Series last season. After Tuesday's collison with Millar, Damon got the outfielders and coaches together, and they decided to create more separation between the outfielders, so "I can run to balls better," said Damon.

Damon certainly ran to the ball in the sixth, leaping against the fence to rob Segui of a homer. He ranked the play as among the best in his career. "I had a beat on it and a good idea of where the fence was," he said. "Knowing where to jump is half the battle."

What a night.

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