Nobody is going to say in early August that the Red Sox are primed to run away with the American League East, but it sure feels that way, doesn't it?
That feeling last night wasn't so much the product of the Red Sox' 6-4 win over the hapless Kansas City Royals, which extended their winning streak to six games. But with the Yankees' 6-5 loss to Cleveland, the Red Sox got their lead up to 3 1/2 games for the first time since a July 8 win at Baltimore.
That is no small accomplishment for a team that swept the Twins in the middle of the Manny drama, and a team that has survived the loss of its closer, Keith Foulke, and adapted to the appointed one, Curt Schilling, who earned his sixth save last night.
Life after the trading deadline was very good for the Sox last season -- they went 42-18 -- and they hope this season will be no different. While the blockbuster deal involving Nomar Garciaparra at last year's deadline sparked the Sox to a wild card berth that led to a World Series championship, making no major trades at the deadline could be the spark this time around.
''No trades. There's no way we could survive without Manny," said center fielder Johnny Damon. ''With one swing of the bat, Manny makes a difference. We don't have to feel like we need to scratch and claw for those runs. Manny is able to do it with one swing, and that's better than any trade."
Ramirez began life after the trade deadline by holding up a sign that read, ''The New Episode . . . 'Manny Being Manny.' " Then he knocked in four runs -- giving him 97 RBIs in 98 games -- to pace the offense.
His 29th home run in the fourth inning reduced a 4-0 deficit to one run, and his RBI single up the middle in the seventh gave Schilling an insurance run for what would be a shaky ninth inning.
Certainly, much credit has to go to starting pitcher Tim Wakefield, who on his 39th birthday was able to survive the 12th and 13th homers off him in seven starts, as he worked seven solid innings with no walks and seven strikeouts.
Former Sox farmhand Chip Ambres, who was traded July 19 in the Tony Graffanino deal, hit a solo homer in the third and also was on board in the first inning when former Sox outfielder Matt Stairs belted a three-run homer. But Wakefield kept the Sox close.
''I thought he had good stuff," said manager Terry Francona. ''He made a couple of mistakes. Unfortunately, they were home runs. But he went out and had some quick innings. He was efficient. He gave us a chance to regroup and get back in the game with the first three-spot on Manny's home run."
Wakefield said he brought his good stuff from the bullpen.
''I felt great in the first inning," he said. ''The ball just stayed up for Stairs. From there it was a battle just to keep us in the game."
The Sox, who eventually torture bad pitching staffs, had to wait until Royals starter Runelvys Hernandez had left after six with the 4-3 lead to turn things in their favor. The damage came against against reliever Ambiorix Burgos.
In the seventh, Burgos walked Jose Cruz Jr., making his Red Sox debut after being acquired from the Diamondbacks over the weekend. Cruz, once a 30-30 man, was pinch-run for by Adam Stern because he's still recovering from a back injury. Stern scored the tying run on Graffanino's single, which got by right fielder Emil Brown, who slipped on the grass.
''You never like that to happen," said Royals manager Buddy Bell. ''Brownie has played pretty doggone good. It didn't help, but they also hit the ball pretty good. They deserved to win."
Damon then singled up the middle, scoring Graffanino with the go-ahead run.
After David Ortiz singled Damon to third, Ramirez gave the Sox a cushion run with his single.
Mike Timlin survived a shaky eighth when he put two men on with two outs before getting Brown to fly out.
Schilling preserved the two-run lead in the ninth, though it was hardly a clean one.
He walked leadoff hitter Mark Teahen, then balked him to second when Kevin Millar wasn't on the bag. Schilling allowed a long fly ball to right to Angel Berroa for the first out, and went 3-and-2 to John Buck before getting him fishing for a splitter. On his 27th pitch, Schilling got Ruben Gotay on a called third strike to end the game.
''Schill is pitching great as our closer, and I think we're all looking forward to the day when we get Foulkie back and the possibility of having both of them down there," Damon said.
The Sox went 14-13 in July, starting the month 2 1/2 games up and ending it the same way. They hope August is the month when they run away and hide from the Yankees.
''We're playing well right now, and the key is to stay consistent," said Damon. ''We're probably going to lose a few games, but the key now is to win series, play well at home, and go on the road and hold our own.
''We didn't always play that great in the first half, but we hung in. We know pretty much what our team is going to be and we're excited that key players on this team, like Manny, aren't going anywhere."