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ON BASEBALL

In the end, Ramírez delivers

Manny Ramírez didn't have a hit in his last 10 at-bats in Philadelphia. He had a three-whiff game one night in Baltimore, and a total of just four hits in 22 at-bats in two cities.

``Manny didn't have a good trip?" catcher Jason Varitek said, his eyes widening in surprise. ``You tend not to notice when different people are contributing at different times.

``But that was a big home run for us today."

Ramírez had a big night last night, driving an 0-and-2 pitch from Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang deep into the center-field seats to cap the four-run third, and later adding a sacrifice fly to go along with a first-inning single in the Red Sox' 9-5 beating of the Bombers.

But for the last two seasons, slow starts have become something of a habit for Ramírez. There were panic attacks all over New England last spring, when Ramírez went 22 games (from May 16 to June 11) with just 1 home run and 10 RBIs, and was batting just .248 with 11 home runs and 44 RBIs more than a third of the way through the season. Such stretches had been virtually unknown through the first decade or so of Ramírez's career, and the what's-wrong-with-Manny chorus grew louder with every passing day.

So far, however, Ramírez's relatively quiet beginning -- after he came to camp as chiseled as he's ever been in a Sox uniform -- has barely registered on the anxiety scale, Ramírez having schooled Sox observers into recognizing that he'll still deliver considerable bang for Boston's 20 million bucks.

Pending the outcome of West Coast action, there are 48 big-leaguers who have hit more home runs than Ramírez this season (8), and 90 players who have knocked in more runs (22). At this juncture, Albert Pujols has ended all discussion about the identity of the best righthanded hitter in the game.

But anyone who thinks Ramírez -- and, for that matter, Alex Rodriguez, who also homered in the ninth inning last night -- won't re-enter that conversation by the end of the season should know better.

In the 94 games in which he played after June 11 last year, Ramírez hit .321 with 34 home runs and 100 RBIs.

``I don't doubt for a second that he's going to have a Manny Ramírez year," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. ``The guy's an outstanding hitter. Your hits and RBIs don't come equally distributed throughout the course of 162 games.

``I don't know what his on-base percentage is" -- it was .426 at the start of the night -- ``I haven't looked recently, but I'll bet it's real high.

``To me, he's having quality at-bats. He hasn't gone off on one of those RBI tears, but to me it's just a matter of time. If you have a checklist of things to worry about for a GM or anyone associated with the team, he's like last. You don't worry about him."

Terry Francona said that by now, he's learned to leave Ramírez alone, even when -- or perhaps especially when -- he struggles.

``He has his way of doing things," Francona said. ``I have a lot of confidence in his ability to get himself right. I don't need to be jumping in there.

``He has his routine. Just give him his at-bats and let him plug away and he's pretty dangerous. That ball he hit tonight, that ball was crushed."

The home run was the 43d Ramírez has hit against the Yankees, the team he grew up cheering in Washington Heights; it's far more than anyone else on the current Sox team (David Ortiz is second with 17). Only Carl Yastrzemski (52) and the discredited Rafael Palmeiro (47) have hit more against the Bombers since 1960. Ramírez now has 443 home runs in his career, moving ahead of Dave Kingman to 32d on the all-time list.

``There's nothing different going on with Manny," said Kevin Youkilis, who walked, doubled, and scored twice. ``He's still having fun."

Like when he pocketed A-Rod's home run ball after it was tossed back onto the field, surrendering it only after third base umpire Rob Drake informed him he must.

``Hitting is hard," Francona said. ``There are a lot of different variables that go into it. I think the good side to that is we know how good he is, and I still stand by that when the season's over, his numbers are going to be where they [usually] are.

``Somebody's going to have to pay for it."

Last night, Wang was that somebody.

``It looked like he tried to do something [up] with Manny, which is not [Wang's] neighborhood," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. ``It's Manny's neighborhood. Not his neighborhood."

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