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BOB RYAN

Will ounce of prevention be the best medicine?

For the second straight start, Tim Wakefield did his job (3 runs, 4 hits in 8 innings) but didn’t get much offensive support as his record dropped to 1-3.
For the second straight start, Tim Wakefield did his job (3 runs, 4 hits in 8 innings) but didn’t get much offensive support as his record dropped to 1-3. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)

It was a 6-4 homestand. Good? Disappointing? Too close to call?

With a fraction under 10 percent of the season in the books, there is one safe thing we can say about the 2006 edition of the Boston Red Sox: They have come exactly as advertised. We have no need to haul Theo Epstein in front of the Better Business Bureau, demanding refunds. This is the team he promised.

We were told the era of Home Run Derby would be over. We were told the Red Sox would henceforth be constructed on the ancient twin pillars of pitching and defense. We were told this team was no longer interested in bludgeoning teams into submission, that this year games would be won in a less flamboyant manner. All this is coming to pass. If you are addicted to offense, there's a team down in the Bronx on its way to scoring 1,000 runs. Perhaps you can pledge allegiance to it.

All this means there will be more than a few nights like Thursday, April 20, when the Red Sox were not much of a threat with bats in their hands against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and especially starter Scott Kazmir, who has attained full-fledged Red Sox killer status (standing tall, next to Ted Lilly). For the second time in five days, the Sox squandered a more-than-adequate performance by Tim Wakefield, whose record fell to 1-3 with this 5-1 loss but who quite clearly has pitched well enough to be 3-1.

''I thought he pitched great," said manager Terry Francona. ''It happens sometimes where you go through a little string or a little cycle where the club is not scoring runs for you. If he continues to throw like that, he is going to rack up a lot of wins."

The Red Sox have had a lot of well-pitched games. They have already won games by scores of 2-1 (twice) and 3-2. Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett are 7-0 between them, with ERAs in the ones. They have thrown the ol' leather around nicely, with Kevin Youkilis being a surprising defensive addition at first base. Alex Gonzalez has been routinely spectacular at short, not that anyone is surprised.

But the offense cannot continue like this if the Sox are going to be successful.

They need Coco Crisp back, and they are not going to have him until well into May. He will miss the nine-game road trip (Toronto, Cleveland, Tampa Bay) that begins tonight, and when that's over, he will be carefully brought back to the lineup on a step-by-step basis. So it's a combination of Willie Harris and Dustan Mohr in center field, and it's Youkilis leading off, and that's not what you want.

And then there's the mystery of Manny.

Forget about Manny Being Manny. How about Manny Being Jeff (as in Conine?). Sixteen games into the season, Manny Ramírez has one extra-base hit, a double. The career home run total has been stuck at 435 since last September. This is all-too-reminiscent of his 2005 start, during which he bottomed out at .224 on May 27.

There are limited sources of official offensive thunder and lightning on this team. You've got David Ortiz, you've got Manny, and, frankly, you don't even have a legitimate No. 5 hitter (last night it was Mike Lowell). If Manny doesn't start being Manny soon, Big Papi will start paying the price. Given the futile swings he's had the last two nights, that may be happening already.

Of course, you already know the last person who will admit to a serious problem is Francona. The skipper may be expressing understandably negative thoughts behind closed doors, but in public he radiates optimism.

Asked if he's concerned about the team's offense if Manny doesn't start hitting soon, the skipper seized the bait. ''I bet you a dollar he does," Francona said. ''I might even make it 2 bucks. We'd like to score 10 runs a night. It doesn't happen in April. I like the way we catch the ball. I like the way we are playing and I believe in our offense. Sometimes you just have to be patient, because if you bail on the patience and go in a different direction, you lose the good things that are about to happen. Guys like Manny, they get to their level and it will be fun to watch because it will come in bunches."

Who doesn't expect Manny to hit, to start being Manny? He probably will get his normal 35-40 homers and his normal 110-120 runs batted in, and the skip is right to assume that before too long he will go off on a ridiculous two-week explosion that will have all of us laughing about the very idea that anyone could have been worried about good ol' Manny.

But right now things are precarious offensively. There aren't a whole lot of good things happening with men in scoring position. It's pretty much gotten to the point where the only people you want to see up when a big hit is needed are Big Papi and Youkilis, and you don't want to be elevating Youkilis beyond his station just yet. He's great to have as part of the equation, but isn't it a bit premature to be relying on him? The answer is yes. What this team needs is Youk to keep being Youk by getting on base and for Manny to start being Manny by knocking people in.

The Red Sox are working hard for the money. With the exception of Wednesday's game, when the Devil Rays helped bury themselves with four errors, the Red Sox are winning with what they like to call ''run prevention." A lot of this has been made possible by the emergence of Jonathan Papelbon as an uber-closer. The kid already has saved both 2-1 games and the 3-2 game. That will continue to be the M.O. Get used to it.

It is going to be the new run-prevention Red Sox vs. the Bronx Bombers to end all Bronx Bombers, with the Blue Jays worming their way into the race, too. This is Theo's Grand Design, but that plan did call for Crisp to replace Whatshisname in center and the leadoff role, and for Manny to once again be the Manny who will someday have a plaque in Cooperstown, and not some guy whose slugging percentage barely exceeds his batting average.

So maybe 6-4 was pretty decent.

''Believe me," reiterated Francona, ''I'd want us to score a bunch of runs, but I love the style of baseball we're playing. We're going to win more games than we lose if we play clean defense and get good pitching."

That's Tito's 2006 story, and he'll be sticking to it until the leaves start falling.

Josh Beckett goes tonight in Toronto. If he's on, two runs will do OK, three, to be on the safe side.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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