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RED SOX 3, DEVIL RAYS 1

Warming trend

Sox win fourth straight, behind Payton, Wakefield

Tim Wakefield may be on one of those runs he's gone on a few times in his distinguished career, when he's virtually unhittable for a long stretch.

It's too early to tell whether this is Wakefield vintage 1995, when he started his Sox career with a 14-1 record in his first 17 starts (and a 1.65 ERA) after the Pirates released him. But yesterday's 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay, completing a sweep of the Devil Rays, was the third consecutive strong outing for Wakefield (2-0 with a 1.37 ERA), who threw 100 pitches in six innings, allowing one run while striking out five and walking three.

"So far, so good," Wakefield said. "I felt really comfortable in spring training, so I'm just trying to keep things going."

Matt Mantei, Alan Embree, and Keith Foulke finished it off, and Sox pitchers threw 7 1/3 hitless innings after Carl Crawford's RBI single in the second.

The Blue Jays are in town today for the annual 11 a.m. Patriots Day game.

Yesterday, on the nicest day of the young season, with temperatures nearly hitting 70, the Sox did just enough off Devil Rays starter Scott Kazmir, the impressive 21-year-old lefthander who in 9 1/3 shutout innings against the Sox in two previous starts had struck out 15.

One of manager Terry Francona's lineup decisions paid dividends when Jay Payton, playing in place of lefthanded-hitting Trot Nixon, stroked a two-run single through the right side of the infield in the third inning. Edgar Renteria had started the inning by blasting a homer to the far left corner of the Red Sox bullpen, and those were all the runs Boston would need.

It was an impressive three days for the Sox after the sometimes chaotic Yankees series before it. The Sox, winners of four straight, were able to get strong outings out of David Wells, Matt Clement, and Wakefield, while also getting quality innings from the bullpen. They allowed the Devil Rays only three runs over three games.

All of which drove Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella batty.

The veteran skipper, who has had to take it on the chin with this low-payroll and very young team, lost his temper after the game, when a reporter followed Piniella's comment of "[Kazmir] threw more and more strikes as the game progressed" with the question, "Is that something he's been doing?"

"I don't know, son, go look at the [expletive] charts, they'll tell you about him. I don't know. You people ask the same [expletive] questions every day . . . every [expletive] day. What else we got?"

The postgame experience was far more serene for Francona, who has watched his team score 37 times in the first six home games and saw slugger Manny Ramirez get going Saturday night with a pair of homers and six RBIs.

"It feels more like just regular baseball," Francona said. "I understand why. There were a lot of things going on, but we got down to playing baseball, and fortunately we played pretty good baseball."

Francona was especially taken by Renteria's blast, which was smoked. Renteria has reached safely in eight straight games and is hitting .348 (8 for 23) through six games in this homestand after a 4-for-24 (.167) start.

"That ball was crushed," Francona marveled. "That was a Manny swing. That ball was really hit."

Renteria said, "I hit it really good. It was a fastball outside. I stayed with it and I hit it good. I got lucky today. The ball was jumping that way. I'm just a little guy; I thought it was a double."

Embree has been the early star of the bullpen, making his second appearance of more than one inning after making only five of more than one inning all last season. In his 1 1/3 innings, he struck out three. First batters are 1 for 8 against him.

"Wake did a great job and he set the tone for the game," Embree said. "When he sets that kind of tone, we don't want to disrupt it." Embree credits the improvement of his slider in the postseason last year for his early success. "It became effective, and I couldn't ignore it because it helps save fastballs for me," he said.

Foulke had what Francona calls a "clean inning" to earn his second save after a shaky win last Thursday.

"He looked like he felt really good," said Francona. "When he's making guys miss . . . and at that time the shadows certainly didn't help their hitters; that's a tough time to hit. But he threw some good breaking balls."

Wakefield escaped a hairy situation in the first inning when the Devil Rays had runners at second and third with nobody out.

"When you've got runners on second and third with nobody out, you're pretty much expecting to give up a run there," he said. "I was fortunate enough to strike out [Alex] Sanchez to get an out, then Aubrey Huff [lined] out and then I was able to strike out [Josh] Phelps. I was very fortunate. The defense did a great job today."

Wakefield has held opponents to a .130 average (3 for 23) with runners on base.

He allowed his only run in the second, when Travis Lee doubled to right-center, and rode home on Crawford's two-out single up the middle.

The Sox were fairly quiet themselves after the third, but they'd done enough to get the win.

red sox extras
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