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Sox' arms to decide this race

Johnny Damon is stalking Dom DiMaggio's club-record 34-game hitting streak and might well be the best leadoff hitter in baseball. Whom do you prefer? Ichiro Suzuki? Damon is hitting .343 and is line to knock in 78 runs, score 121, and strike out just 67 times. Ichiro's pace: .311, 60 RBIs, 112 runs, 65 strikeouts.

Manny Ramirez, perceived to be disinterested and most definitely slumping as late as May 27, leads all of baseball with 80 RBIs, his ability with men on base so sublime that he's on pace to knock in the most runs by a Red Sox player in 56 years (Ted Williams and Vern Stephens both delivered 159 in 1949).

Ramirez and David Ortiz, still the most disquieting 3-4 combination in baseball, are on pace to belt a combined 80 home runs and knock in 289 runs. Ramirez's totals project to a .275 average, 41 HRs, 149 RBIs, and 30 doubles; Ortiz's totals to a .314 mark, 39 HRs, 140 RBIs, and 45 doubles.

Jason Varitek has willed himself into baseball's best all-around catcher. He probably won't hit .300 -- he's at .301 and figures to be worn by circumstance -- but he could challenge Carlton Fisk's season home run record by a Sox catcher of 26 (Varitek has 13).

The Sox lead the majors in hitting (.282), are second in on-base percentage (.357), and third in runs (473) and slugging (.469). And, they're in first place for the first time since Valentin-Vaughn-Canseco kept you on the couch for a full nine innings each night. That was 1995. At 49-38, they enter the second half two games up on Baltimore and 2 1/2 on the Yankees, a season after trailing New York by seven at the All-Star break despite a 48-38 record.

But, the Washington Nationals also are leading a division, despite ranking 30th out of 30 teams in runs. It's all about pitching, of course, and that will determine whether the Sox reel off anything close to the 42-18 mark they submitted to close the 2004 regular season. At present, they're eighth in the American League in starters' ERA (4.52) but 13th in bullpen ERA (5.64). The bullpen is last in opponents' batting average (.289) and opponents' OPS -- on-base percentage plus slugging percentage -- at .825.

''We're happy to be in first place," Sox general manager Theo Epstein said yesterday. ''I think we all feel our record could be better. The overall feeling is that we haven't necessarily played our best baseball yet."

What follows is an assessment of the second half, with the emphasis on pitching.

ROTATION

Wade Miller hasn't won in seven starts, has only two wins in 12 starts, and continues to put himself and the team in a difficult spot early. His first-inning ERA is 10.50, his ERA thereafter 3.86. Historically, he's an average pitcher before the break (30-27, 4.45 ERA) and an ace post-break (30-15, 3.35).

How much Miller has labored, coupled with health uncertainties, make the second-half performance uptick that's been a staple of his career less likely. He has needed 18.4 pitches per inning, which, if he qualified, would tie Chan Ho Park for the major league lead.

''I think Wade's getting stronger," Epstein said. ''We're optimistic. Is this guy going to come all the way back? No one knows. But look at his OPS against."

Miller's is .753, comparable to that of Mike Mussina (.751), Randy Johnson (.749), Tim Wakefield (.748), and Derek Lowe (.746).

''He has to get that first-inning thing figured out," Epstein said, ''but he's had bad luck."

Miller won't face the Yankees this weekend. Instead, Bronson Arroyo will open the second half tonight, followed by David Wells tomorrow, Matt Clement Saturday, and Wakefield Sunday. Arroyo is 13-21 with a 4.93 ERA in his career before the break, 13-7, 3.96 after the break.

Curt Schilling remains hopeful that he'll join the rotation this season, and his health/performance out of the bullpen over the next two weeks figures to determine how Epstein acts in the trade market.

''I don't feel we need any one thing," Epstein said. ''We don't know what will be available. We don't know if there's a trade that makes sense. We have faith in the people we have. I don't foresee doing anything significant. But it's our obligation to pursue every opportunity."

BULLPEN

The Sox' bullpen figures to undergo a makeover in the coming 18 days, beginning with the addition of Chad Bradford.

Obtained for a gloomy Jay Payton, Bradford could join the Sox as soon as today, though the 30-year-old Oakland reliever hasn't pitched in the majors since undergoing surgery in early March to relieve chronic back pain caused by his dramatic underhand delivery.

''The way he throws is really hard on his back," A's trainer Larry Davis said in March. ''There's no way to change that. That's what makes him so effective. You just have to deal with the resulting trauma that happens . . . It's not going to go away."

The Sox are willing to gamble because Bradford, who recently completed a rehab assignment, brings a career 3.47 ERA to the mound, as well as an appealing ground ball to fly ball ratio. He'll keep the ball in the park -- he's surrendered a home run once every 14 innings in his career -- and he'll keep hitters off balance and uncomfortable.

Most likely there will be at least one more deal to land a pitcher from outside the organization. Who inside the organization, you may be wondering, can help this season? If anyone, it would be Jon Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, or Jon Lester.

The 24-year-old Papelbon is a starter at Triple A Pawtucket, the 21-year-old Lester at Double A Portland. That might make them suboptimal fits in the bullpen, but the Sox, philosophically, believe it does a young starting pitcher good to be broken into the majors in a long/middle relief role.

With John Halama getting hit at a .298 clip, and his ERA putting on weight -- it's up to 6.05 -- auditioning Papelbon or Lester might make some sense. However, Papelbon and Lester have made only one combined start above Double A, and that belongs to Papelbon.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound righthander was promoted earlier this month to Pawtucket, where he allowed one run on three hits over six innings, punching out seven and walking none in his debut, with Epstein in the stands.

Lester (7-2, 2.38 ERA) leads the Eastern League in ERA and has fanned 25, walked just one, and allowed only six hits in 14 innings over his last two starts. In 98 1/3 innings, the 6-2 lefthander has more strikeouts (114) than hits (74) and walks (34) allowed combined.

Both Papelbon and Lester possess low-to-mid-90s fastballs among four-pitch repertoires.

Delcarmen, meanwhile, showed why he can and why he can't help the Sox while pitching scoreless sixth and seventh innings Saturday for Pawtucket at Syracuse, N.Y. The 23-year-old righthander fell behind almost every batter he faced, went to two 3-and-0 counts, and walked two. But he fanned four, routinely unleashing fastballs at 94 and 95 miles per hour. One of the four Ks was looking, at a 75-m.p.h. curveball rated by Baseball America as the best in the Sox' system.

''I just need to get strike one," Delcarmen said postgame. The sense within the organization is that if he can do that and better manipulate his fastball -- up, down, in, and out -- he cannot only help but bolster a big-league bullpen.

''I think we have as good a pitching and as hot a pitching in the upper minors as any team in all of baseball," Epstein said. ''Maybe one of those three gets a chance to help a big-league club this year."

The other intriguing name, of course, is Craig Hansen, the former St. John's University closer drafted by the Sox in June. The Sox are amidst a difficult contract negotiation with Hansen. Even if he were to sign soon, Hansen would be unlikely to join the club in any capacity other than as a September call-up.

Keith Foulke, meanwhile, is one week into a six-week rehab following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee that hopefully will heal whatever was ailing Foulke, whose sustained brilliance is worth pointing out. In 457 games between 1999 and 2004, a span of six full seasons, Foulke compiled a 2.70 ERA and 4.24 strikeouts per walk. In 37 games this season, Foulke's ERA is 6.23 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.93.

''Our hope is he comes back to be the Keith Foulke he's been the last six, seven years, and not the first three months of the year," Epstein said. ''I think that's a realistic expectation. ls it written in stone? Of course not. Any time a player has surgery, there is [uncertainty]."

Once his knee is healed, Foulke will need a minor league rehab stint that figures to be four or so outings over a 10-day period, Epstein said.

SCHEDULE

It's favorable. The Sox have played 49 of 87 games on the road, which means they'll play only 32 of their closing 75 outside of Fenway Park. They finish the year with 24 of 36 on Yawkey Way, including the last seven (four against the Blue Jays, three vs. the Yankees).

Of the 10 games remaining against New York, seven will be played at Fenway. And, of 23 left against the Yankees, Orioles, and Blue Jays, 14 will be staged in the Monster's shadow, where, since the beginning of 2003, the Sox are a preposterous 132-68 (.660), including 24-14 this season (they're 25-24 elsewhere). In those 2 1/2 seasons they've outscored all comers by 298 runs, 1,260 to 962.

But 50 of the closing 79 games come against clubs with winning records. What's more, the AL East isn't close to a lock to place two teams in the postseason. Parity, thy face is no longer only the NFL.

A year ago, the Sox won the wild card by seven games over Oakland. Beyond the A's, only Texas, nine games out, finished fewer than 15 games out of the wild-card race. Undoubtedly, some teams will fade, but as it stands today, 11 AL teams are within six games of a playoff spot. Ten of the 14 AL clubs are .500 or better.

That makes it all the more vital to take care of divisional matters, which brings us to this: The Sox, at 17-21, are the only team leading a division with a losing record within its division. The other five division leaders are a combined 113-65 within their divisions.

SCHILLING FACTOR

What should the people of Boston expect out of their new closer?

''Wins," Curt Schilling said following his last rehab appearance, Sunday in Syracuse with Pawtucket. ''There's no gray area in Boston."

But there are gray areas for Schilling. Will his ankle give in to the stress of throwing, as it did April 23, the last time he pitched in the big leagues? Will his fastball come out routinely at 93, or might it leave his hand at 93 one pitch, then 87 the next? Following November surgery Schilling was told he would need 18 months before he'd regain full ankle strength. It has been eight.

''So," Schilling acknowledged this week, ''whatever I get before 18 months is a bonus. My foot is just not where it was."

If there is good news here, it is that Schilling is down to 237 pounds, or 15 pounds lighter than the last time he gave it a go in April. Now, he'll go about redefining himself as a reliever, at least in the short term.

''The end goal is to still get back in the rotation," he said. ''The sooner the better."

Schilling, who was activated yesterday, has pitched only once in relief since 1992, and that instance was a playoff tuneup in late September 2002 with Arizona. He has just one win this year, and there's no guarantee he'll pick up many more. But he won't beat himself, something that many Sox relievers have done this season. He's walked only six, while fanning 41, in 36 2/3 innings split between Boston and Pawtucket.

A creature of obsessive habit on game days, Schilling will have to make marked adjustments to his routine. They will include how he deals with the media (he never talked on game days as a starter), how he loosens his body to pitch each day, and how he reaches the state of mind he needs to compete and dominate. Before, he'd sit in solitude on the bench well before a game, then walk to the bullpen to warm up a precise number of minutes before game time.

''It's a work in progress," he said of his game-day routine. ''The goal is when I get up to throw in the seventh, eighth, ninth inning, I'm mentally and physically as energized as I can be."

Last Sunday, on the morning of Schilling's final minor league appearance, his 10-year-old son, Gehrig, stood in the PawSox dugout in Syracuse, chatting with a couple of ballboys his age, both of whom were rather excited to be in the superstar's son's presence.

One boy asked about the Yankees. Gehrig Schilling offered a standard response, paused, and added, ''My dad says if you get booed at Yankee Stadium, you're a good player. If you don't, you're a bad player."

Schilling hasn't pitched in the Stadium since Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. It will be two more months, Labor Day weekend to be exact, until he and the Sox return there.

But Schilling won't need the Yankee fans to tell him what kind of player he has become. The Yankee bats -- be they silent or not -- should do that by themselves.

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