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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Summer's here, the heat is on

It's getting a little stuffy in here.

Was it only three short weeks ago that a certain baseball pundit declared the American League East race a runaway? (That's right, Shaughnessy, I'm talking to you.) Manny had begun smashing the cover off the ball the way we knew he would. Pitcher Matt Clement was so impressive we actually speculated he might start the All-Star Game.

Meanwhile, the Yankees were reeling, the Orioles were fading, and after a 7-4 victory in Texas July 6 in which Clement recorded his 10th win of the season, the defending World Series champions were happily perched atop the division with a comfy four-game advantage.

It's not so cushy anymore. Suddenly the Sox are the ones who are searching for answers. They have lost five of their last six -- all against the Orioles and the Yankees -- and 11 of their last 17. Their omnipresent rival in pinstripes has feasted on Boston's demise with wins in 10 of its last 13 games, including last night's 5-3 victory at Fenway Park.

The standings this morning will show Boston and New York with the same number of losses (41) and the Yankees a mere half-game back. After dropping an 8-2 decision to Seattle yesterday, the Orioles stay one game off the pace in the loss column.

No wonder the sticky evening sky at Fenway seemed as stale as a sick ward with faulty air conditioning.

That sort of thing happens when New York comes to town and wrestles away three of four from you by trotting out a pitcher who was rescued from a Florida scrap heap a mere two days earlier. Veteran Al Leiter was so abysmal with the Marlins (3-7 with a 6.64 ERA and opponents hitting .292 against him) they gladly unloaded him for the ever popular ''cash considerations" and ''a player to be named later." The big lefty has been a far cry from the powerhouse who pitched the first no-hitter in Marlins history nine years ago, but New York is so strapped for pitching, they eagerly threw Leiter, who last pitched for them 16 years ago, into the final game of the series. Why not? Leiter knows what this is all about. No one has to get him up to speed on Bucky Dent, Pedro and the mango tree, or Schilling vs. A-Rod.

Give Leiter credit. He was designated for assignment by Florida Thursday, signed by New York Saturday, then walked into Fenway last night and knocked the Sox to their knees. Leiter stuck around for 6 1/3 innings, long enough to whiff eight Boston hitters and limit the Sox to three hits. You can be sure the decision-makers in Miami were screaming into their sets, ''Why couldn't you pitch like that for us?"

Maybe it's the whole Red Sox-Yankees thing. It can turn guys like Aaron Boone into heroes with one swing of the bat.

''I thought [Leiter] gave us a really good message," New York manager Joe Torre said in the understatement of the weekend.

The message worried Sox fans will be transmitting this morning is one of midseason angst. It's bad enough the home team is struggling, but why did A-Rod and Gary Sheffield have to rub it in? There are legitimate concerns. Keith Foulke is on the injured list indefinitely, Curt Schilling admittedly is still not in top form, and the starting rotation is an issue.

''In here, we always say we're going to be all right," said Johnny Damon, who extended his hitting streak to 29 games with a double in the eighth. ''In this town, this is normally panic time, but when we struggled last year, we were able to forget about it and brush it off and come back and win games."

Boston can only hope Tampa Bay, which arrives today for a three-game series, will serve as the antidote to what ails this team. That includes a rotation that has suddenly become disturbingly unpredictable. Clement and Bronson Arroyo were knocked around in this series. Last night's starter, Tim Wakefield, was masterful at times, but he served up home run balls to Sheffield, A-Rod, and Jorge Posada.

So what have we learned from this steamy July weekend? The Yankees are also vulnerable when it comes to starting pitching. Schilling the reliever is still a work in progress, but is hell bent on proving to the world he can do this. The Red Sox can hit, but so can those d--- Yankees.

Oh, yes. And we have a bona fide pennant race on our hands.

''Look," said Arroyo. ''It doesn't matter how many times we lose to these guys during the regular season as long as we take care of business in the playoffs."

The assumption the past few years has been New York and Boston will both make it into the postseason, one as the division winner and the other as the wild card. But that may be a shaky premise this season, with Minnesota in the Central, and Texas and Oakland in the West seeming to be legitimate contenders.

''It seemed like earlier in the season (the wild-card picture) might be a little different than other years, but as we go along, it looks to me like it's shaping up to be the same thing," Arroyo said. ''I think we [Boston and New York] will both be there in the end. But you never know."

It would be foolish to make too much of one weekend in July. All baseball teams go through prolonged bad spells at one time or another, and if you are able to sustain yours and still have a grip on first place, then consider yourself fortunate.

The Red Sox prefer to view it that way.

''Don't forget, we're still in first place," reminded catcher Doug Mirabelli. ''If we come out and win today, it's all forgotten."

Maybe. That all depends on the Yankees, and what they do next. Summer is here, the heat is on, and the scoreboard watching begins in earnest.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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