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RED SOX, 13-3; BRAVES, 14-0

Red Sox are met halfway

Braves take nightcap after dropping opener

The choreography for another splendid day for the Red Sox was in place yesterday afternoon: The rain abated, Daisuke Matsuzaka was aces, the bats boomed, and a couple of hundred miles to the south, another Yankees pitcher went down with an injury.

But that was before the Sox were forced to keep a Saturday night date with John Smoltz, a future Hall of Famer who wasn't going to let something as trifling as a dislocated pinkie keep him from starting last night for Atlanta. The rain returned with a vengeance, Smoltz was aces, the Braves' bats boomed, and a couple of hundred miles to the south, the Yankees took the night off, relieved to have lost only a half-game in the standings.

"I'd hate to see him with all his fingers," Boston manager Terry Francona said of Smoltz after the Sox, 13-3 winners in the first game, fell by an even more lopsided 14-0 score in the second game.

But despite their worst shutout loss in 17 years (16-0, May 25, 1990 at Minnesota), the Sox still gained on the Yankees, who lost another starter, rookie Darrell Rasner, two batters into their 10-7 loss to the Mets with a fractured index finger.

The Yankees dropped to fourth place, 10 1/2 games behind the Sox. They've never been this far behind since 1995, a year before the Joe Torre era began . The Orioles, who beat the Nationals in extra innings, are 9 1/2 back, and the Blue Jays, 13-2 winners over the Phillies, are 10 games behind. The Sox started the day with a 10-game lead over the Orioles and Yankees, only the second time in history that a team has led by as many as 10 games as early as 40 games into a season. The Seattle Mariners, who won an American League-record 116 games in 2001, had a 10-game lead after 35 games.

But after burying the Braves yesterday afternoon before a crowd of 36,358 that watched the Sox hit four home runs, Boston ended the night with Alex Cora making his big league debut at first base, Dustin Pedroia batting in the cleanup spot, and Smoltz, the Eck of his era (199 wins, 154 saves), winning for the first time since turning 40 Tuesday.

"He has always been a big-game pitcher," said Braves manager Bobby Cox after Smoltz allowed just three hits in seven innings against a team that had a season-high 18 hits in the opener. "Not that tonight was a big game, but after getting slaughtered in the first one, I thought he came out big."

Rookie Devern Hansack, meanwhile, was a one-game pitcher. Called up when Josh Beckett was placed on the disabled list, Hansack was optioned back to Pawtucket after the game, clearing space for this afternoon's starter, rookie Kason Gabbard.

"The starter leaves after four innings in the second game, that's not a real fun night," said Francona, who elected not to send Hansack back out for the fifth after he'd given up four runs, plus taken a ball off his pinkie while trying to grab Edgar Renteria's grounder. X-rays were negative.

"You're trying to protect everybody. We elect to go with 12 pitchers, which I agree with. That makes it harder on the position players, but gives us the chance not to overextend our bullpen. So whatever we get from Gabbard, it's saving us from starting a bullpen guy and keeps our bullpen intact."

The Braves piled on against relievers Joel Piñeiro and Javier Lopez. Atlanta had a club-record 12 extra-base hits, including home runs by Chipper Jones (Hansack), Matt Diaz (Hansack), and Kelly Johnson (Piñeiro). Smoltz, meanwhile, was imperiled only in the first inning , when he had runners on first and third but whiffed Manny Ramírez and Eric Hinske.

Last night's crowd of 36,792, washed out of a game the night before, sat through a steady drizzle and a brief drenching in the seventh, about the time a fire alarm went off in the old yard. One of the night's few cheers went up when the scoreboard announced it was a false alarm.

The Sox' first-game barrage began with Boston's first hitter, Julio Lugo, who led off the first inning with a home run off rookie Anthony Lerew. It continued an inning later when Kevin Youkilis hit a two-run home run, crested with a grand slam by Mike Lowell in the fifth, and ended with a showpiece home run by Wily Mo Peña over everything in the seventh.

Matsuzaka, meanwhile, was barely taxed by the Braves, allowing just five singles through the first six innings before some adventures in left field by Peña, who grabbed a glove with the Sox ahead by a dozen and replaced Ramírez, led to a three-run Braves seventh. Two runs scored on a home run by Jeff Francoeur, who had half of Springfield at the game, including his father, David, who grew up there, and his grandmother, Rita.

"Our pitchers are doing a phenomenal job for us," Lowell said. "They're keeping us in games when we're not hitting, and keeping the other team at bay when we are."

Yesterday afternoon, anyway, the hits came in waves. Only Jason Varitek came up empty, and he crushed two balls, one that drove Andruw Jones to the track in center, and another that knocked Renteria to his knees as he made the catch at shortstop.

Lowell had four hits, the fifth Sox player in just 16 days to have a four-hit game, and drove in five runs, leaping ahead of David Ortiz for the team lead in RBIs with 35 to Ortiz's 33. Lowell extended his hitting streak to 11 games with an infield hit off Smoltz in the second game.

"I'm in a great situation," said Lowell, who came up with the bases loaded in the first but flied to center. "The three guys in front of me--Manny, David, and J.D. [Drew] -- are all high on-base percentage guys, so I get a lot of opportunities. I'm satisfied I'm doing a good job driving in runs, but I like those situations. I like to hit with runners in scoring position. I have a good mind-set for that."

Matsuzaka is always of the mind that he should finish what he began, but Francona thought otherwise, lifting the Japanese righthander after the eighth, when he was at 104 pitches.

Matsuzaka (6-2), who won his third straight start and fifth in his last six starts, was deprived of the chance to become the first Sox pitcher since Tim Wakefield in 2005 to throw back-to-back complete games. He would have been the first since Roger Clemens in 1996 to win consecutive complete games.

"Given my pitch count at the end of the eighth inning, I was expecting to go back out there in the ninth," said Matsuzaka, who yielded to Kyle Snyder for the last three outs. "I think given my pace up to that point, it would have been normal to go back for the ninth, but the manager came in and spoke to me and said that given our big lead, go and get some rest."

After their second day-night doubleheader in three days, that's good advice for anyone in a Red Sox uniform.

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