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RED SOX 4, DEVIL RAYS 1

Loretta right on target

He kills Rays' rally with heads-up play

One day during the Barry Bonds watch in San Francisco, Giants manager Felipe Alou was watching a Red Sox-Yankees game. Mark Loretta was up and Alou said softly, as he pointed to the screen, ``That's a good baseball player right there."

Loretta might not have the swing of Manny Ramírez or the presence of David Ortiz, but he has a vivid role on the 2006 Red Sox, which is to be a heads-up player who wins games with intangibles.

One such moment occurred in the sixth inning of the Red Sox' 4-1 victory over the Devil Rays last night. After five shutout innings by Josh Beckett, Loretta made a play that likely changed the course of the game. After Julio Lugo doubled off the wall, Wily Mo Peña overthrew the cutoff man, shortstop Alex Gonzalez.

Loretta, covering second on the play, had the wherewithal to back up Gonzalez, quickly retrieving the ball and tossing to third base, where he had Lugo dead to rights. It could have been man on third, nobody out in a game the Sox led, 2-0. Instead, it was one out, nobody on, and Beckett got through the inning unscathed.

``It was a series of fortunate bounces," said Loretta, who was 2 for 5 with an RBI. ``That's a play you might see once a year. That was an aggressive play by [Lugo]. If he gets to third with nobody out, it's going to be tough to prevent him from scoring, given the way that team hits."

First baseman Kevin Youkilis, who reached base four times with two hits, a walk, and a strikeout in which he reached on a wild pitch, echoed the kudos for Loretta, calling it ``a great play on a split-second decision. Odds are he's going to score if he's safe."

There was certainly no one more appreciative than Beckett, who allowed four hits, struck out seven, and walked one, but had to toil with tough hitters who made him pitch deep into the count. After six innings, Beckett had thrown 101 pitches and in Dennis Eckersley's terms was ``gassed."

``That [the Loretta play] was unbelievable," Beckett said. ``I was just standing there in awe."

``Good players have a way of being in the right place," said Sox manager Terry Francona. ``At the time it was 2-0, got potentially the best speed in the league on base, their dangerous hitter coming up, [he] turns an extra-base hit into an out.

``That was a big, big play."

It was an impressive rebound after losing two of three to the Yankees. There were frustrating moments -- 15 left on base -- but the Sox banged out 13 hits against three pitchers, 11 against starter Doug Waechter (0-3).

Beckett, now 7-1 with an ERA dipping to 3.80, provided the impetus for the Sox' offense.

After a hideous outing by Matt Clement Wednesday in the series finale against the Yankees, in which he allowed eight runs over 4 1/3 innings, Beckett came out throwing zeros with a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, an effective changeup, and location, location, location.

The Sox, who had a 4-0 lead, staved off the Devil Rays, who rallied against Mike Timlin in the eighth. The Sox reliever allowed three straight hits, including an RBI single to the garage door in center by Jonny Gomes.

Timlin, who had relieved Keith Foulke in the eighth, faced runners at the corners with two outs, but Francona went with closer Jonathan Papelbon, who rambled in to a standing ovation. Papelbon got up quickly on Ty Wigginton, 0 and 2. In the six-pitch at-bat, Papelbon got him swinging on a nasty 86-m.p.h. splitter.

``I had 0-2 and I had to keep it down so he wouldn't put a good swing on it," Papelbon said.

Papelbon threw 31 pitches in his 1 1/3 innings to record his major league-leading 16th save. Papelbon has not allowed a run in eight games (he allowed his only run May 3 vs. Toronto). His 0.36 ERA is best among major leaguers with at least 15 innings. Sox closers have a 0.72 ERA in save situations, allowing three earned runs in 37 2/3 innings; in non-save situations, they have a 5.15 ERA with 50 earned runs in 87 1/3 innings.

The Sox scored in the first when Youkilis led off with a single to center and scored on Ortiz's one-out single to right-center.

In the third, the Sox got some breathing room. Ortiz beat Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon's ``34" shift.

After the first pitch to Ortiz, the Devil Rays switched to an elaborate shift in which third baseman Aubrey Huff moved to left field. The outfielders moved to their right and two infielders were on the outfield grass.

It didn't matter.

Ortiz stroked a single between first and second, sparking a rally that continued with a walk to Ramírez, Trot Nixon's long fly to center (that moved Ortiz to third), and a one-out single to right by Jason Varitek.

The Sox added insurance runs on Loretta's single to left in the sixth, which scored Peña, and in the seventh. With the bases loaded (Nixon single, Varitek single, and a walk to Peña), Youkilis swung and missed at strike three, but a wild pitch allowed him to reach. Nixon scored from third base, while Youkilis reached base for the fourth time.

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