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Home stretch good time to make a stand

If you're going to make a case for why the Red Sox will not lose their lead in the AL East, it was precisely what we saw last night: Their starting pitching is too good.

If you're going to make a case for why they might squander it, it was scoring only three runs on eight hits in a 3-0 win over Tampa Bay.

The yin and yang of this team is that it pitches well and struggles to hit. We know what the stats say: The Sox are hitting .290 and have scored 171 runs in 31 games since the All-Star break; that's the second-most runs (behind the Yankees) in the AL. But it doesn't feel that way. Their bullpen has allowed 23 earned runs in its last 34 innings over a 14-game stretch, which has caused some concern, though Jonathan Papelbon had a clean inning to save last night's win.

Tim Wakefield got his 14th win with eight innings of two-hit ball, making Sox starters 11-5 over their last 22 games. Boston's starters have a major league-best 58 wins.

Last night's win came against a team, granted, that Wakefield always pitches well against. But the important thing is that the Red Sox got back to winning. At Fenway, their fortunes tend to change for the better. It doesn't hurt that they're playing the last-place D-Rays to warm them up for a weekend showdown against the Angels.

If ever a team needed to win a game, it was the Red Sox last night. That's because the Yankees keep winning and are scoring a plethora of runs. They don't appear to be going away this time.

"I wouldn't say it was a must-win," said Kevin Youkilis, "because it's not the playoffs, which to me is when it's a must-win. But this was great for us to get a win at home and hopefully we're getting back on the right track."

There are no guarantees, of course, and those who firmly believe the Sox are destined to lose their hold on first place have a case when they point out that the Sox are only 18-16 since July 5, when they peaked with a 12-game lead.

There are key players who absolutely cannot spend time on the disabled list. One is Jason Varitek, who remains the most vital player on the team. Another is Josh Beckett, the ace, and Papelbon, the closer, and still another is Curt Schilling, who already has done his disabled list time and now must step up over the final quarter of the season.

Terry Francona again drew the ire of some fans when he rested both Dustin Pedroia and Coco Crisp last night, but in the end, the lineup did enough to support a superb effort by Wakefield. Papelbon did what he was supposed to do, and the Sox were lifted from the funk of two walkoff losses in Baltimore over the weekend.

"I've always said that it's not how you start, it's how you finish," said Julio Lugo, who went 3 for 4 from the leadoff spot and is up to .238. "For our team to go places, we've got to start putting something together and take off. Maybe being home will do that for us.

"Tonight was a big win because of what happened in Baltimore over the weekend, so we're just happy to come out here and put together a good game, and Wake really lifted us up. We wanted to make sure we gave him some support. It was tough, but we got enough done at the plate to help him out."

Sox players know what people are saying about them. They know that many doubt they will hold on, that the Yankees may overtake them, that the sky is falling.

We're sure Francona has received plenty of advice from Red Sox Nation on all of the things he's doing wrong, and that Theo Epstein has heard all about the horrific signings of Lugo and J.D. Drew.

By resting Pedroia and Crisp (who has the flu), Francona is showing his team that he's not panicking. He's concerned more with making sure his best players are ready to go over the final quarter and into the postseason.

"What we're most concerned with here is winning series," said Mike Lowell. "Because if we're winning series, we're playing over .600 ball, and that's what we want to do. If we start looking at the scoreboard every night watching to see what this team and that team is doing, it's not the right way to go about it.

"We've got to win games and series and take care of ourselves. We've been in first place for a long time and we've gotten here because we've been consistent. We just have to maintain that consistency and play fundamentally sound. I think we can keep doing that.

"We all know around here what it takes to win a championship. A lot of us have been through it. We didn't have a good weekend in Baltimore, but we know we can turn that around."

The players believe the season will even out for them again.

"I think we're going to play good ball," Lugo said. "I think everyone feels better being at home. We have our fans behind us. We all want to put on a good show for them."

As Wakefield pointed out, "It's unfortunate because we had some games won there [in Baltimore], and that's baseball sometimes. That's why you play 162. I think it was very important for us to get back home and get some momentum going our way in front of our home crowd."

This homestand could be one on which the Sox relaunch themselves. Young Clay Buchholz, if he's indeed going to pitch in the doubleheader Friday, could give the team the same kind of boost that Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes are giving the Yankees.

But it also is a homestand on which the bats must start beating the stuffing out of the baseball. If they do, you can make a good case that the lead will not vanish.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.om

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