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BOB RYAN

Big bang sounded in Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A little humility . . . supposed to be good for the soul, right?

The only problem is the Red Sox say they didn't actually need any humbling. They knew what to expect when they stepped inside Tropicana Field, where they have now dropped the first two games of this four-game series by scores of 3-0 and 9-6.

``We were saying when we were in Atlanta how good we thought they would be, that this would be a tough series," reported Gabe Kapler. ``They can compete. They would be a contender in a lot of divisions around baseball. We all knew they would be very challenging."

On Monday night the Red Sox were shut down by one of baseball's best (young) pitchers, Scott Kazmir. Yesterday afternoon and early evening they were beaten every which way. They were out-hit, out-defensed, and out-pitched. Manny Ramírez's astonishing two-out, three-run homer in the ninth -- the ball might very well have cleared the back wall in Fenway -- made this game appear to be a lot closer than it was. There was no real game after Mike Timlin was roughed up during a five-run eighth.

Aside from Kapler making a pair of Web Gem catches and going 3 for 4 with a home run that truly sounded like a home run, not much good came out of the first two games from a Boston viewpoint. Begin with this: Terry Francona's top-of-the-rotation starters, 10-game winners each, gave up three home runs apiece. In fact, all the runs scored off Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling came on homers.

``If we'd won," said Francona, ``you'd say they gave up some solo homers. Right now, that's a very aggressive fastball-hitting club. You can see they're all feeling good about themselves. You can see them getting their arms extended and giving it a jolt."

That's no lie. The Devil Rays have hit some shots. Ty Wigginton put the wood to a pair off Beckett, one of which was an impressive poke to right-center. He also hit one off Schilling. But the home run the Devil Rays and their fans will be talking about for a while was the fourth-inning missile launched by maniacal DH Jonny Gomes, a soaring shot that caromed off a catwalk about 117 million miles above the field. Wherever that Space Shuttle is going, it's a safe bet Gomes's blast would have gotten there first if this game were outdoors.

But Schilling could have lived with that if only . . . if only he could have gotten back the first pitch he threw to Wigginton leading off the seventh. The Red Sox were pumped, having battled back from a 3-1 deficit with a run in the sixth on Kapler's RBI single and another in the seventh, when David Ortiz beat one of Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon's patented 2-4-1 zone defenses the old-fashioned way, by lining a Chad Harville pitch over the 370-foot sign with two away.

As soon as Schilling released the ball, he knew he was in trouble. ``A fastball," he sighed. ``Middle-middle." That's baseballese for Meatball. Wigginton swung and Schilling knew, all right. He bent over, put his head in his hands and just about put a contract out on himself. It was no longer a tie game.

The eighth got ugly fast. Aubrey Huff started things off with a slicing, opposite-field double. Seven batters later, Carl Crawford brought things to a head with his seventh triple of the season, a line shot to right-center. In-between highlights included a successful safety squeeze executed by Wigginton and a two-run double off the bat of newly acquired catcher Dioner Navarro. Manny Delcarmen gave up the Crawford triple, but all five runs were credited to Timlin.

And, no, the manager is not worried about his 40-year-old setup man. ``No, no," he said emphatically. ``He's always so reliable," Francona said. ``Today it just didn't work."

The Devil Rays are no myth. Even last year they were the best ``bad" team I've ever seen, and now they're substantially better. They've got big-time speed and aggressiveness at the top of the order with Julio Lugo (``Our catalytic converter" -- Maddon) and the completely entertaining Crawford, who is good enough anyway, and who now is playing with the I'll-show-you-fervor of a legitimate All-Star who did not get selected for the team. Rocco Baldelli is back now and the real Aubrey Huff has likewise returned to claim his spot in the lineup from the identity-fraud character who had besmirched the family name during the months of April and May. Huff has now hit safely in 16 of his last 18 games (.422), raising his average from .186 to .265.

Then you've got to deal with a second baseman who drove in 100 runs last year (Jorge Cantu); the menacing Gomes, a man who always gets his hacks; and Wigginton, whose three homers and four ribbies the past two games have put him on target to knock in a hundred himself.

It was suggested to Schilling that he just happened to run into a team that is playing with newfound confidence.

``I don't know that it's confidence," he said. ``That's a helluva offensive team. You can say what you want about Tampa Bay, but they're not an expansion team any more. That is an American League offense. You've got to make good pitches against them. Now that they've got everyone back and healthy, that's a solid lineup."

Once the Red Sox leave town following tomorrow night's game, the Yankees will arrive for three. For this reason, some locals are framing this week as some sort of exam period for this interesting young team. Maddon is not one of those people.

``That's not the way I look at it," he said. ``I'm not judging us against those teams now. I'm just judging us against ourselves, and how we're improving."

But Maddon makes it very clear that in no way is he feeling sorry for himself and his team because they remain in the American League East. ``I love being in this division," he insisted. ``If you're going to be the best, you've got to beat the best. I'm very excited about being in this division."

The reality, of course, is that it's been a no-harm, no-foul couple of days since the Yankees are having their own problems with Cleveland. But I recommend the Sawx win the next two here. You don't want these feisty Tampa Bay kids and their polysyllabic manager getting any grandiose ideas.

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

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