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ON BASEBALL

Things are tightening up

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Too close for comfort?

David Ortiz, whose ninth-inning home run (No. 44 this season) and four RBIs were still not enough to keep the Red Sox from falling a run short of beating the Tampa Bay Devil Rays last night, considered the question. The Sox have been in first place in the American League East for 62 straight days and 86 out of the last 87, every day but one since June 24.

Now, after their 8-7 loss to the Devil Rays here and the Yankees' win over Baltimore in the Bronx last night, the lead is a half-game. The Sox lead hasn't been this small since July 20.

''Crazy, man," Ortiz said quietly, then sighed deeply. ''It's not getting any better, you know. This was a game that we had to win, we needed it. It ain't gonna get any closer than that.

''I still say this was the season for us to be 10 games up on the Yankees. They can't play no worse than they did at the beginning of the season this year. And they're not going to play any worse than that, guaranteed. To have a team starting like that and by this point you're not at least 10 games up . . . "

Ortiz's voice trailed off. The Yankees' slow start this spring is ancient history as autumn approaches. But yes, he said, there were missed opportunities.

''There were some games, sometimes you're in first place in the division you make mistakes and don't [win those]," he said. ''These are the games that count right now, and I'll tell you what, the way those guys [the Devil Rays] are playing over there right now, you got to put a lot in it to beat them. You've got to bring your 'A' game."

Ortiz was asked if he was concerned or worried.

''I would say maybe a little upset, but what can you do?" he said. ''Nothing but keep fighting, because it's not over yet, you know what I'm saying?"

Forget what you've always heard: You don't always dance with the one who brung you.

Sometimes, you have no choice but to reach out for whoever will get you through the night, even if they've never been here before.

With the old reliables ailing (Trot Nixon), failing (David Wells), or bailing (Tony Graffanino), the Sox, 150 games into the season, entrusted a playoff race to a kid from Long Island who only weeks ago was still a big man on campus but never had played an inning of pro ball.

Craig Hansen's big-league debut last night may long be remembered as the start of something special. His first pitch, at 9:10 p.m., was a 95 mile-an-hour fastball to Tampa Bay catcher Toby Hall, who struck out to start the fifth, the Devil Rays holding a 5-4 lead. His 19th and final pitch, at 9:18 p.m., was swung at and missed by Tampa Bay shortstop Julio Lugo, who also struck out. In between, Hansen broke the bat of Damon Hollins, who popped to shortstop Edgar Renteria.

''He's got unbelievable stuff," Ortiz said of the 21-year-old righthander. ''But you know how it is, his first year as a pro, you want to take it slowly. You don't want to put a young kid like that in a tough situation. Sometimes your ability walks away. This game is crazy. But he has unbelievable stuff. Easy cheese."

That was a night's work for Hansen, the team's No. 1 draft choice from St. John's, who arrived yesterday and wasn't supposed to see a pressure situation out of the chute, according to Terry Francona. But it was a night of improvisation for the Sox manager, whose starting pitcher, Wells, gave up twice as many runners (12) as he recorded outs (6) in 2 2/3 innings in which the Devil Rays slapped around the 42-year-old lefthander for 10 hits and two walks, including a third-inning sequence in which they went single, single, single, double, sacrifice fly, single, single, and walk before Francona pulled him.

Wells came into the game with a 13-1 lifetime record against the Devil Rays, who are facing three pitchers (Wells, Curt Schilling, and Tim Wakefield) who have a combined record of 29-6 lifetime against the league's most misbegotten franchise. But instead of dominating, Wells duplicated the sorry effort of the day before by Matt Clement, who gave up eight hits and seven runs to the A's in just 1 1/3 innings of Sunday's 12-3 loss to Oakland.

''I just went out and stunk it up, period, no questions asked," Wells said.

Asked if he felt the Sox' lead slipping away, he said, ''I don't know, do you think it is? I don't feel it is. I had a bad night, didn't help the team, but I don't feel it slipping away. We still got a few more games to go. I'm very positive about what we can do and how we finish up."

Ortiz hadn't heard how the Yankees won last night, on a walkoff home run by reserve outfielder Bubba Crosby. ''But I'm not surprised," he said. ''That's how they do it, man."

More than anyone in the Sox clubhouse, Wells can speak to the Yankee way. He had two go-rounds with the Bombers and begged for a third before signing with the Sox.

''I don't care," he said when asked how it must be in the Yankee clubhouse these days. ''I'm worried about what we're thinking and how we're going to get through this.

''Anything can happen, so go out and play to your ability. We went through a little bad spell and the Yankees are hot. We were hot for a long time. I think this was just made for this, to go into late September. That's what a pennant race is.

''A lot of people were writing them off early, but I would have said they were crazy because that team finds a way to crawl back into it, as well as this team. We're still half a game up. Anything can happen. At this point of time we got to play great, great baseball. From this point on, we can't look back. We're in first. It's up to us to lose, obviously."

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