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RED SOX 9, ORIOLES 3

Sox' victory finishes long, grinding road

BALTIMORE -- ''Probably, probably," David Wells said yesterday evening, when asked if his ailing right knee will require surgery this offseason. Still, Wells landed on that knee 104 times yesterday, 77 times with the result being a strike, pitching 6 2/3 innings until leaving with burning in his knee and a win in his hip pocket.

Johnny Damon, damaged wing and all, clubbed a home run, his first in 76 at-bats. A sign, perhaps, that he's feeling healthier?

''No, I don't think so," Terry Francona said. ''What I think it says is he's a real tough guy."

There is no catchy slogan affixed to the 2005 Red Sox, nothing Kevin Millar birthed, distributed, and trademarked. But there is an identity, more apparent with each passing day. That common element, supplanting the resiliency of the 2003 ''Cowboys" and freewheeling nature of last season's ''Idiots," is grit.

''It's been a grind," said captain Jason Varitek, who yesterday scored from first on a single in a five-run first inning, sending the Sox on their way to a 9-3 win that completed a three-game sweep of the crumbling Orioles (eight consecutive losses).

They are home, your boys of summer, hoping to again become legends of the fall. The Yankees? Need you ask any longer? A go-ahead homer from Robinson Cano in the seventh inning and a three-run Gary Sheffield tack-on shot in the eighth secured their 12th win in 14 games, 8-4 over the Blue Jays at the Stadium, and a dead heat atop the AL East. (A loss by the Indians left Boston and New York a half-game in back of Cleveland in the wild-card standings.)

And now, the final week begins. Seven at home for the Sox (four vs. Toronto, three vs. New York). Seven on the road for New York (four at Baltimore, three in the Fens).

''We know what's in front of us," said Wells, who, despite his knee pain, fully intends to make his 30th and final regular-season start Friday in the series opener vs. the Yankees. ''We can't put pressure on ourselves."

This weekend, the Sox didn't play like a team that fell out of first place in Tampa Bay Wednesday with an eighth-inning collapse. They outscored the Orioles, 19-9, in the three-game set, taking the season series, 10-8. They trailed for four innings Friday and never trailed again all weekend. They played loose and won.

''We had to," Francona said. ''But I thought we did a great job. We've always been very resilient."

Yesterday Boston pounced on John Maine, a rookie who handled the Sox the first time he saw them, Sept. 2 at Fenway. This time he lasted just 3 1/3 innings and was roughed up for five runs on four hits in the first inning, all with two outs. David Ortiz, who came to bat in the first, second, and fourth innings with two outs, walked all three times. Not a terrible move, except Maine left a 1-and-1 fastball over the thickest part of the plate in the first to Manny Ramirez.

Four hundred twenty-four feet later, the ball landed, the Sox ahead, 2-0, on the left fielder's 41st homer of the season, fifth in five games, and eighth in his last 15 games.

''The effort to maybe pitch around David, with two outs, we really made some things happen," Francona said.

Trot Nixon (10 for 20, two doubles, a triple, and a home run on the road trip) then singled, and Varitek walked. With the count full on John Olerud, Nixon and Varitek went in motion, and shortstop Miguel Tejada, somewhat oddly, broke toward second about the time Olerud swung. The ball found the hole where Tejada should have been.

''I asked him what happened," said Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo, ''and he told me he was going after the ball, and it hit and kicked to his right. I guess it's possible that the ball, you know, inside out from a lefthanded hitter, could go ahead and kick. It was more of a mental mistake."

Nixon scored with ease and Varitek motored past windmilling third-base coach Dale Sveum. Tejada, upon receiving the ball from the outfield, held it for a moment, and his delayed throw home was cut off by Maine.

''Dale's decision and Varitek's awareness were tremendous," Francona said. ''That's as good a hustling play and seeing a play develop as you'll see."

Said Damon: ''Dale is always going to take a beating because we've got the slowest team on the face of the planet. We do not run bases worth a crap, so that's why Dale takes a beating. He's not afraid of it. Dale's been awesome for us."

Bill Mueller doubled in Olerud on the very next pitch, making it 5-0. Mueller lifted his season average to .301 with three hits and made an equal number of underrated plays on in-between hops in the field.

''Wow, I'll tell you something, he's had a great year defensively," Francona said.

Tejada, whose throwing error Friday night cost the Orioles three runs and the game, made a two-run error in the fifth yesterday. The Sox had plated two runs in the inning on doubles by Nixon and Varitek and a Mueller sacrifice fly when Tony Graffanino reached on a Tejada fielding error.

Damon, up next, fell behind 0-and-2 before lashing at a James Baldwin offering, stretching a 7-2 lead to 9-2. The homer was his 10th of the year (he had 20 last season).

''The rest of the way out, he may not be at his full effectiveness," Francona said. ''He may. He's a pretty tough guy. It's nice to see a ball leave the ballpark for him because when he has that threat that's a big deal for us."

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