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RED SOX 7, DEVIL RAYS 4

Victory sweet for Sox

Olerud provides pop as Rays are swept aside

On a team of idiots, John Olerud would seem to be a misfit.

Olerud might not be the guy dancing on the coffee table with a lamp shade over his head singing ''Sweet Caroline," but he is the guy with the sweetest swing on the Red Sox roster. When he's on, as he was in a 7-4 Red Sox victory over the Devil Rays last night, driving in six runs with a pair of homers and a ground-rule double, there's no one more entertaining to watch.

Olerud, 36, is often the subject of fodder among fans who believe he should be in the starting lineup all the time. Last night's performance, on a night when Manny Ramirez sat to rest his weary legs, Olerud's performance made a strong case for that opinion.

Olerud would welcome the extra workload, but Red Sox manager Terry Francona reiterated last night that he's trying to manage his playing time, feeling it's more prudent to pick his spots with the veteran hitter rather than risk overuse and possible injury.

''I feel I'm an everyday player," said Olerud. ''I feel like, you know, the hamstring injuries . . . I don't know what the explanation is for them; I don't know if it's a sign I'm getting older and I'm going to start getting more of them. I feel like I'm in pretty good shape. It just depends on the situation and what role you'll have."

Olerud has been hitting well since being activated off the 15-day disabled list Aug. 17 after suffering a hamstring strain. He is now 14 for 30 (.467) with 11 RBIs in his last seven starts.

Olerud, now hitting .333 overall with 5 homers and 29 RBIs, was hitting seventh in last night's lineup. Wednesday night's first base hero, Kevin Millar, played left field and went 2 for 4 while Olerud, a three-time Gold Glove winner, played first base.

Olerud, who played for the Yankees at the end of last season, was signed by the Sox May 1 and joined the big club May 27 after recuperating fully from a Lisfranc joint foot surgery which delayed his '05 debut.

The Sox continued their familiar pattern of falling behind early, then overcoming shaky early innings from their starter, in this case Bronson Arroyo, who got stronger at the same time Olerud and Sox bats began to get hot.

The win, coupled with a Yankees loss, gives Boston a 3 1/2-game lead in the American League East.

After witnessing Boston's four-game sweep, Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella said, ''Thank God we don't come in here anymore. I've heard enough 'Sweet Caroline.' "

Terry Francona's gang has won 19 of its last 20 games at Fenway Park.

Arroyo allowed Jonny Gomes's two-run homer in the second. Aubrey Huff scored ahead of Gomes after leading off the inning with a double. Arroyo then settled down and retired the next three Devil Rays. The Sox pulled even in the bottom of the inning when Olerud launched the first of two home runs, a two-run shot over the Boston bullpen.

''I hit a fastball," explained Olerud. ''I got a good swing on it and I got some help from the wind, but I hit it pretty well."

But Arroyo failed to keep things status quo. Struggling with his breaking ball, Arroyo hit Huff on a 2-and-1 pitch to lead off the fourth. In the third, he had hit Julio Lugo with a pitch, but Tampa couldn't capitalize. This time they did. Travis Lee followed by launching a two-run homer to give the visitors a 4-2 lead.

The Sox trimmed it to 4-3 when Edgar Renteria touched Rays starter Doug Waechter for a sacrifice fly. Alex Cora, batting ninth and playing second base for the still-injured Tony Graffanino (sore right hamstring), reached on what was scored an error by third baseman Jorge Cantu. Johnny Damon singled to right, sending Cora to third base before he trotted home courtesy of Renteria.

But the real damage came in the sixth.

Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek set the table with a walk and a single before Olerud delivered another sweet stroke, a three-run homer to the Tampa Bay bullpen to give the hosts a 6-4 lead.

''On that one I was just trying to hit a sacrifice fly," Olerud said. ''I got behind it and hit it pretty well."

Arroyo settled down and finished his outing with three straight scoreless innings through seven, handing the ball to Jonathan Papelbon for the eighth and two batters in the ninth before Mike Timlin mowed them down for his fifth save.

Olerud added an insurance run when he stroked an RBI double down the left-field line that kicked into the stands, scoring pinch runner Gabe Kapler, who had run for Kevin Millar. Millar had another decent night, going 2 for 4, including a ground-rule double to right in the eighth.

Olerud feels his swing has come a long way since last season when he was released by the Mariners and then signed by the Yankees.

''Yeah, I think my swing is much better now," he said. ''It's hard to put your finger on it. What I was working on this year is similar to what I was working on in Seattle. I was trying to get a bad habit out of my swing and I continued to work on it when I got to New York. I started getting more hits in New York and this year I just feel I'm swinging the bat well. Making a lot better solid contact."

Asked if his Red Sox experience is what he thought it would be when he signed here, he said, ''You really don't know what's going to happen. Here you know what your role is coming in to play defense and you hope you make the most of your opportunities so you get a little more playing time. You never know how things are going to go."

Olerud, the quietest Red Sox, made a loud statement last night, about what his playing time should be and that he wants to be an everyday player.

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