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RED SOX 7, DEVIL RAYS 6

Rallying points

Damon, Nixon star in a dramatic win

If only the Sox could bottle this -- the passion, the energy, the team-becoming-a-team situations that seem to arise, time and again, against the poor club out of Tampa Bay that can afford only a basement apartment in the AL East.

It was on that terrifying July 26 night in Tampa Bay, when Matt Clement took a baseball off the side of the head, that the Sox launched an an eight-game unbeaten streak.

And last night, despite falling behind, 5-0, after two innings, at which point Curt Schilling ''was as down as I've been in a long, long time, emotionally," the Sox surged back, scoring two in the eighth to tie it and winning, 7-6, in the ninth on Trot Nixon's two-out, bases-loaded, curtain-lowering single.

Nixon's hit -- a liner to right that plated David Ortiz -- brought the team out to meet him at the first base bag, where commenced much bouncing and whooping, all in celebration of the club's 22d win in 31 games dating to that seminal evening of July 26.

Nixon's hit was appropriate in its drama, a fitting ending to a very eventful tale spun before the 206th consecutive full house on Yawkey Way.

This game included: warnings for both dugouts in the first inning (after Scott Kazmir hit a batter with his first pitch of the night); Schilling allowing five runs on seven hits through two innings, then no runs on two hits over his closing four innings, with his 97th and final pitch registering at 94 miles per hour; an ejection of a Tampa Bay coach (no, not Lou Piniella); a key play at the plate (Nixon erased Toby Hall to end the Tampa Bay eighth); and Johnny Damon, who was supposed to miss a few days, sparking a two-run, eighth-inning rally that tied the game at 6-6.

Nixon's throw to the plate is a good place to begin, given that it was as important as his single that would win it. Tampa Bay was ahead, 6-4. Hall, the catcher, was at second when Carl Crawford singled to right. Nixon unleashed a one-hopper, just up the third-base line. Jason Varitek gloved it, swung, and swept at Hall.

Hall's view: ''He didn't tag me. I went around him with my foot."

Varitek's take: ''I didn't tag him flush. I'm totally uncertain."

Piniella, who made several trips out of the dugout to engage umpires last night, wasn't pleased. And in the bottom of the inning, he'd have even less reason to be.

Kevin Millar -- the man responsible for the bleach blond hair on not only his head but Schilling's -- was scheduled to lead off. Instead, Damon walked to the on-deck circle. Damon, recall, was hit by a pitch on the left hand in the sixth inning Monday night, and his manager said that night, ''I don't doubt it's going to be a few games [he's out]."

But there was Damon, to a rousing ovation. When did Terry Francona decide Damon was physically able to play?

''The sixth inning," the skipper said. ''He went down to the cage and hit."

Damon came back and said he felt fine.

''And I went back to make sure he wasn't lying," Francona said. ''I checked in the cage, and asked the guys who were throwing to him."

Damon led off against reliever Joe Borowski, the ex-Cub who since joining Tampa Bay had 20 consecutive scoreless appearances (21 innings) leading into last night. Damon battled him for a seven-pitch walk, the last pitch extremely close and probably a strike.

Nixon then doubled just over Crawford's head in left, moving Damon to third. Bill Mueller followed with an RBI ground out, which gave Damon his 100th run (he's had at least 100 runs and 30 doubles for eight consecutive seasons). And John Olerud, previously 1 for 8 as a pinch hitter this season, hit for Gabe Kapler and lined a run-scoring single to right, tying the game at 6-6 through eight.

''It's amazing to me, the direct impact he had on this game because of his willingness to play," Francona said of Damon. ''I guarantee he doesn't feel good."

(The skipper, by the way, intends to write Damon's name back into the leadoff spot tonight.)

Hall, behind home plate for the ball four call on Damon, had as much if not more difficulty stomaching that than he did being called out at home earlier in the inning.

''I'm safe, and it was strike three," Hall said. ''So there it is."

Tampa Bay went 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, and it seemed the game was going to end in the Sox' favor; it was only a question of how. And that impending doom, coupled with the call on Damon's walk, and on Hall, had the Tampa Bay dugout fuming. Tampa Bay bench coach John McLaren began yapping with home plate umpire Ed Montague near the visiting dugout.

''I was just trying to prevent someone else from getting thrown out," McLaren said. ''It turns out I got thrown out."

He wouldn't be around for the Sox' 17th win in their last 18 games at Fenway. David Ortiz, with one out in the ninth, walked. Piniella relieved Borowski with closer Danys Baez, who came in to face Manny Ramirez. Ramirez singled to right, and Ortiz chugged around second and flopped into third. Varitek then walked, loading the bases with one out. Damon, up next, lined to right, too shallow for Ortiz to tag up.

But up came Nixon, and down went Tampa Bay.

''I was looking for Baez to come after me like he normally does," Nixon said. ''He elevated a little bit. I hit it off the end of the bat. I was fortunate to get a hit."

And the team was fortunate to get a win. As Schilling said, the Sox won not because of him but because they scored seven runs, a feat they've accomplished in each of their last dozen games at Fenway, a prime reason they will enter September leading the AL East.

''I'm not surprised," Schilling said. ''Our offense is so good and so dominating. We've been bad pitching for five months and we've found a way to win more than we've lost."

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