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ON BASEBALL

Another one-run game won? This is too good

TORONTO -- Maybe the capricious forces that rule the baseball universe, the ones that so far this summer have dictated that 26 of the 30 teams in the major leagues would have won more one-run games than the Red Sox, finally are tilting in the Sox' favor. After last night's 5-4 escape over the Toronto Blue Jays, the one in which Ramiro Mendoza was the unlikely bridge between Mike Timlin's man-the-barricades heroics in the sixth and Keith Foulke's say-goodnight-Canada lullaby at the end, the Sox have now won their last three games decided by a run, and four of their last five one-run decisions. That still leaves them with a worse record in one-run games (11-17) than the league's weakest entry, the Kansas City Royals (11-16), which may merely underscore the contention of the team's resident wizard, John W. Henry, that one-run outcomes are often a random event. But it still represents progress for a team that would like to be engaged in meaningful competition come October.

"I'm not saying it's an anomaly," said Timlin, who entered the game in relief of starter Tim Wakefield with the bases jammed with Jays, no outs, and the top of Toronto's order poised to erase the two-run advantage (5-3) the Sox held at that moment, and promptly struck out Reed Johnson and Orlando Hudson before retiring hotshot rookie Alex Rios on a fielder's choice to short.

"But we're playing pretty well right now. Pitchers are throwing strikes, we're getting the right hits at the right time, and the relief corps has been able to stop the bleeding when we've had to."

That corps now includes the likes of Mendoza, who last night was called upon by manager Terry Francona to open the eighth inning after the Jays touched Timlin for a run in the seventh on a double by Frank Menechino and Gregg Zaun's two-out single to draw within a run. Mendoza, who has been used almost exclusively under less perilous circumstances this season, did his job, retiring Chris Gomez on a foul pop to first and Johnson on a roller to third.

"I think he's earned that," Francona said of dialing 1-800-4Ramiro at such a late hour. "And it saved Foulkie from having to pitch two full innings."

That gesture was not lost on Foulke, who recorded the last four outs, the sixth time in his 23 saves he has labored more than an inning.

"That's one of those things that shortens the game," said Foulke, who encountered a momentary hiccup when he walked Menechino on a full count with two outs in the ninth, then whiffed Eric Hinske to end it.

"Now that [Mendoza] is healthy, he can go out there and get you two outs, three outs, six outs," added Foulke. "He's one more weapon that we have. That makes everybody better and shortens the game a little bit. People don't want to get into our bullpen."

On the outside, the onus for the team's poor record in one-run games has fallen on Francona (at least on those occasions when it hasn't landed on third base coach Dale Sveum). It didn't make anyone happy that after the Nomar Garciaparra trade, the Sox played five one-run games in less than two weeks, and lost them all. Obviously, Francona welcomes the turnaround.

"We needed to," Francona said. "I don't think it's just luck. There were reasons we lost one-run games before, and we also knew we needed to win those games. The way we're set up now, we'll probably play in a lot more one-run games.

"We're catching the ball better now, which makes a big difference. We're set up to win more of those games than we did before with our defense. But if it's also luck, I'll take the breaks any time."

Having Doug Mirabelli on his side helped last night, too. Mirabelli, working a regular shift with Jason Varitek serving a four-game suspension, would have started yesterday anyway, with knuckleballer Wakefield on the mound. But it was here, back in April, that Mirabelli had comically set up broadcaster Don Orsillo to beseech the manager to play Mirabelli more. That night, Mirabelli hit two home runs and knocked in three runs. Last night, he matched that RBI total with one swing of the bat, sending the Sox into the lead for good with his three-run homer.

Asked if he remembered Mirabelli lobbying for playing time here, Francona rolled his eyes.

"That's been in every city," he said.

He was the right man in the right town last night.

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