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Sox preying upon Angels

Wild-card foes meet at Fenway

Growing up near Camp Pendleton as the son of a Marine gunnery sergeant, Dave Roberts learned all about baseball in Southern California. He played for UCLA before he wound up across town as the center fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, keenly aware that losing a Freeway Series to the Angels was tantamount to a Hollywood star turning an acting triple play of "Gigli," "Waterworld," and "Dude, Where's My Car?"

Roberts knows the Angels the way the Red Sox know the Yankees. He knows how the Angels almost stole Tinseltown from the Dodgers by winning the World Series in 2002, the year of the Rally Monkey. And he knows how tough the Angels are to beat, as the Sox learned this season when they dropped four of their first six games with Anaheim, one of their top rivals for the American League wild card.

The Angels, who trail the Sox by 1 1/2 games for the wild card, roll into Fenway Park tonight as Terry Francona's crew opens a nine-game stretch against Anaheim, Texas, and Oakland that could prove pivotal in the fight for October. The Sox play three games each against the Angels and Rangers in the Fens before they head west for three against the A's and three more against the Seattle Mariners.

The Angels have won 10 straight and are the only AL team to rank among the top five in hitting (.288), ERA (4.36), and fielding percentage (.985).

"They have a great team," Roberts said. "Those guys play really hard and they're fundamentally sound. What they've done the last few years is what I see the Red Sox doing right now in terms of execution and playing good defense."

Almost to a man, the Sox routinely have resisted every temptation this year to assign more importance to one stretch of games than another -- until now. The Sox also lost four of their first six games to the Rangers, who trail by three games for the wild card.

"Our next nine games are the biggest stretch of the year," Kevin Millar said. "We know that, and we know we have to continue to play good baseball."

The timing hardly could be sweeter for the Sox, who have won six straight and 12 of 13. They have seamlessly blended into the mix the players they acquired while sending Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs -- Roberts, Orlando Cabrera, and Doug Mientkiewicz -- and improved in nearly every facet of the game.

"It's a great bunch of guys," Roberts said, "and it's a compliment that they were so willing to accept us."

The Angels stunned the Sox by sweeping a two-game series in Anaheim in early June before the teams split a four-game set out West July 15-18. The Angels, propelled by an offense with power, speed, and the skill to play smallball, outscored the Sox over the six games, 37-27. The Angels had an on-base percentage of .400 over the six games, hit seven homers, and stole eight bases without getting caught. The Sox managed only a .326 on-base percentage and one steal.

"When we played them in that short two-game series out there, I thought they were the best team we'd seen all year," Francona said. "Then we had our hands full when we went out there and split with them. But we're a different team, we're playing better, and we're playing here. Hopefully, that will give us the boost we need."

The Sox recently have relied less on the long ball as they have honed their ability to manufacture runs with speed, sacrifices, and timely hitting. They have stolen more bases (13) in August than any other month this year.

"When we got into those modes where all we did was hit homers, we didn't have a lot of success," Francona said. "When we string together two-out hits, it's conducive to winning baseball."

The Angels have been doing a lot of things right offensively as they lead the league in hitting (.288), sacrifice bunts (47), and stolen bases (110).

"Any time you get a team that can beat you a bunch of different ways," Roberts said, "it's hard to combat."

Curt Schilling found a way when he surrendered only one run on three hits over eight innings of a 6-2 victory July 18 in Anaheim. Schilling goes for the Sox tonight against John Lackey, who opposed him in that game.

"Offensively, they're really good," Schilling said. "They're hitting the ball on a consistent basis right now. [Catcher Jason Varitek] and I have a chance to go out and set the tone for this series, and that's what we're going to try to do."

Schilling, who struggled a bit by his standards after the break, has gone 4-1 with a 3.06 ERA in August as he has regained his fastball and splitter. He recognizes the importance of faring well over the next two weeks in the wild-card race, though he has a loftier ambition.

"We're playing the two teams that are right there [in the wild card], with a chance to make hay," Schilling said. "It's a big stretch for us, but I'm looking at it as we're 4 1/2 games behind New York and we have to keep pushing because that's our goal."

Though their camaraderie has received less attention than it did last year, the Sox have maintained a positive and united tone even when they were playing .500 ball for nearly three months.

Credit Francona for fostering the atmosphere, the front office for acquiring players who thrive in the Fenway fishbowl, and the players themselves for persevering through a mini-epidemic of injuries and assorted adversities, including the tense buildup to the trading deadline and the fallout from Garciaparra's departure.

Through it all, the Sox have clung to a basic principle of winning baseball.

"It's all confidence," Gabe Kapler said. "You can play this game with [poor] mechanics and have success if you're confident. You can play this game with less-than-perfect personnel and have success if you're confident. If you're not confident when you step out on that field as a team, you're going to [stink]. I think we've always been confident, but I think we're a little extra confident right now."

One test of just how far their confidence may carry them begins tonight. 

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