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With the Red Sox one-quarter through 1 S.A. (Season After), the most immediate lesson derived at this juncture is that team CEOs are as eminently capable of second-guessing the manager -- and by extension, the general manager -- as anyone else who picks up the phone and calls a radio show.

But what probably should matter most to Larry Lucchino, who during his weekly on-air forum said the Sox made a ''mistake" in sending David Wells to the mound Wednesday in Oakland without a rehab start is that: 1) Wells, unlike Curt Schilling, has shed his plastic boot and gave no signs that his sprained right foot remains an issue; 2) Despite arriving in Boston in the middle of the night with the rest of the team, Wells was at Fenway Park yesterday afternoon working out and already preparing for his next start Tuesday against Toronto; 3) Even in his best years he's always had a half-dozen or so starts as unmentionable as the one he made Wednesday, but he has enough quality starts to keep him in demand even at age 42, which he turns today.

Not that Lucchino was suggesting Boomer is a bust. Far from it. But the fact is, the only time Wells ever needed a rehab start was in 1994, when he came back from elbow surgery with the Tigers. He didn't have any coming back from his multiple back surgeries or any of the assorted other calamities that have befallen him, which is why manager Terry Francona, GM Theo Epstein, and pitching coach Dave Wallace had no compunction about sending Wells to the mound. Especially since the last time he missed any measurable time, last spring after cutting his hand in a kitchen accident, he held the Sox scoreless for 5 2/3 innings.

Here's what happened with Wells on the Coast. He was actually cleared by doctors to start in Seattle, but he was held back to give him one more simulated start and make sure he was OK. Francona, with the input of Wallace and presumably Epstein, believed that Wells gave the Sox a better chance to win against the A's than Jeremi Gonzalez, who had been lit up in Seattle.

Wells's return to health and the continuing absence of Schilling are two of the more compelling issues facing a team that begins interleague play tonight with a three-game set at Fenway Park against the Atlanta Braves. A year ago, the Sox were 24-16, a half-game ahead of the Yankees in the American League East, and had outscored their opponents by 37 runs. Until losing, 13-6, Wednesday, the Sox had the same run differential and would have matched last season's record with a victory. Instead, they're 23-17, having scored more runs at this stage than their '04 predecessors (223-199), and allowing more (193).

Sox starters last season led the league in ERA, as did the bullpen. This year, with both Schilling and closer Keith Foulke nowhere close to where they were at this point in '04, Sox starters rank eighth with a 4.51 ERA, and the bullpen is next to last at 5.20. Still, the news is hardly all sour on the pitching front: Bronson Arroyo, Tim Wakefield, and newcomer Matt Clement have combined to go 12-2, and Alan Embree and Mike Timlin, the aging setup men with supposedly limited shelf lives, have been outstanding. Embree has developed confidence in the slider he began throwing last season, and Timlin has been nigh unhittable (0.93 ERA in 20 appearances). Embree can't match those numbers, but in five appearances since being cuffed around in Detroit May 2, Embree has pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and walking two, both intentional.

Offensively, despite Manny Ramirez's baffling .237 average, no home runs out of the third base position, a homerless April from Kevin Millar, and Edgar Renteria's up-and-down debut, the Sox have scored more runs than the '04 club and have a higher on-base and slugging percentage than the '04 team. Great starts by Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, and Trot Nixon, who all rank in the top 10 in hitting, have helped to offset what could be the worst month of Ramirez's career at the plate (he's hitting .176, 9 for 51, in May, though he remains third in the league in RBIs with 34 and has 10 home runs). Ramirez's struggles also create more problems for Ortiz, who is batting .225 with runners in scoring position as pitchers bear down on him even more relentlessly than in the past.

If it were the Yankees, and not the Orioles, who held a three-game lead on the Sox at this stage, the team's perceived shortcomings would be plumbed with more intensity. The Schilling Watch will continue unabated -- suddenly, returning in another month is starting to look optimistic -- which gives Wade Miller's encouraging return from shoulder problems (he pitches tonight) more urgency. What may be the most striking difference on the landscape from last season is the emergence of the White Sox, whose great start (29-12) raises the distinct possibility that the wild-card team will not emerge from the East. The Sox may have no choice but to win the East outright.

''I've really been satisfied with the effort," said Francona, who doesn't put much stock in cutting a season into quarters and evaluating it on that basis. ''When you're not 100 percent, and you see guys say, 'Who cares, let's go win,' that does help a team develop its personality.

''You look at Detroit, when we were really beat up. I remember Johnny Damon walking by me in the dugout in the game Manny came out and I was also asking Mark Bellhorn if he could play short, with [Ramon] Vazquez hurt, and Johnny jokingly said, 'We have a situation.' It was his way of saying, 'Relax.' "

That's a state of mind that rarely lasts long around here. The worrying resumes tonight.

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