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Red Sox 8, Devil Rays 1

20 is something

Beckett stops bleeding; Sox' lead now 2 1/2

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - There were a couple of boxed bottles of Dom Perignon in Josh Beckett's cubicle in the visitors' clubhouse at Tropicana Field last night. Before he left, he tucked one under his arm.

No, said Jason Varitek, the captain of the Red Sox and the man behind the plate when Beckett won his 20th game last night, he hadn't provided the choice bubbly.

"If I had to guess, I'd say Schill," said Varitek, referring to Curt Schilling, the last Sox pitcher to win 20 in a season (21-6 in 2004), in the aftermath of Boston's 8-1 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "He's a 'Dom' kind of guy."

And what is Varitek's idea of saluting a job well done? He pretended to shake an imaginary hand. "I'm more of a 'good job' kind of guy," he said with a wry grin.

In the moment of his defining triumph, Joshua Patrick Beckett becoming the first major league pitcher this season to win 20, the first to do so since 2005, and Boston's 10th pitcher (15 times) to do so since 1950, the tribute by his teammates was secondary to what he gave them last night.

On a night the Sox needed him to be everything a 20-game winner is supposed to represent, to set their tottering world right again, the 6-foot-5-inch righthander from Spring, Texas, delivered. Beckett held the Devil Rays to one run in six innings while the Sox scratched out enough offense against Devil Rays ace Scott Kazmir to give him a 3-1 lead, until the big bats thundered late against the Devil Rays bullpen.

"I appreciate it," Beckett said of the benchmark he has attained at age 27, the onetime Kid Heat carving another notch toward fulfilling an adolescent's boast that he might one day be mentioned in the company of his heroes, Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. "It's obviously a great feat, and nice to relish. There was a lot of hard work by a lot of different people. There's a lot of people to share this with, including everybody in this room who dresses in a Boston Red Sox uniform.

"We all needed to pick each other up."

For the Sox, this was a night, after four straight losses matched by four straight Yankee wins, comprised of equal parts exultation and exhalation. With eight games to play, the Sox magic number for a postseason berth is down to 2 - any combination of Sox wins and Tiger losses totaling that number and the Sox will be in the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

The news became even better just before midnight, when the Yankees fell in 14 innings to Toronto, dropping the Bombers 2 1/2 games behind the Sox in the AL East Division race.

If the Sox extend their season into October, said Mike Lowell, whose 20th home run followed on the heels of David Ortiz's three-run shot, his 32d, in the ninth, he sees no reason the Sox should refrain from celebrating, even if the division title is unresolved.

"We haven't discussed it," Lowell said of a possible playoff-clinching party, though as of last night the Sox had not arranged for the delivery of party favors to Tropicana Field. "I've asked around.

"I think you should celebrate every time. We're here to have fun. You think we'd rather celebrate this year, or go home like last year? I'd celebrate this year. I don't care. Maybe not all-out craziness, but we've got to be happy that we'll be one of only four teams to go."

Ortiz, who insisted manager Terry Francona put his name on the lineup card against Kazmir even though the plan was to rest his aching knee, responded with three hits and four RBIs, is among those who wave off the importance of winning the division.

"Who cares where you end up now if you win the World Series? We were playing to go home at this time last year. We're going to be playing more baseball this year. Big difference."

Beckett is 20-6, the first pitcher since 2005 to win 20. He is 7-1 in his last eight decisions, and has won his last four in succession. And his record after a Sox defeat is 10-3, a number that may most vividly define his value to the Sox this season - a role the last Boston 20-game winner, Schilling, filled so splendidly in 2004.

With the Sox reeling after four straight losses, Beckett was given a 1-0 lead in the first when Jacoby Ellsbury grounded a double down the right-field line, was bunted to third by Dustin Pedroia, and scored when Rays catcher Dioner Navarro threw wildly trying to pick him off third.

But Beckett labored in the first, throwing 34 pitches while the Rays scored the equalizer on a couple of walks and a double by Delmon Young, Tampa Bay's Rookie of the Year candidate. But the last spot of trouble Beckett faced came in the third, when he gave up two-out singles to B.J. Upton and Young. Jonny Gomes bounced into a force play to end the inning, and Beckett did not allow another base runner before leaving after six.

"I'm ecstatic for him," said Lowell, who was Beckett's teammate in Florida and watched him win a World Series MVP in 2003 for the Marlins. "Twenty is a great benchmark, man.

"Like today, I don't think he had his best stuff, but to grind down six innings and [give up] one run, knowing we can't give them many runs because Kazmir was on the mound, that's when you show me what you're made of.

"Everything's cool when you've got all your three pitches and hitting your location, but when you don't and you need to grind it out, that's when you show me what type of pitcher he is. We have a good man."

Beckett struck out five of the last nine batters he faced - eight in all - and profited from a daring catch by Ellsbury, who flew into the visitors' bullpen -which is along the left-field line - and stumbled over one of the mounds, but somehow kept his eye on the ball and his glove in place to snare Greg Norton's foul fly ball, avoiding crashing into a folding chair in the process.

"Oh man, we were just trying to get out of the way," reliever Manny Delcarmen said. "Me and Javy [Lopez] were joking around, flipping cups, and all of a sudden we saw him come out of nowhere. He hit that slope and fell. I don't know how he caught that ball."

That was not the team's only brush with potential harm. Kazmir hit Eric Hinske and Varitek with pitches, and reliever Jeff Ridgway clipped Pedroia after walking Ellsbury, moments before Ortiz unloaded with his 32d home run of the season.

Earlier, Ortiz had singled home a run in Boston's two-run third (the other run scoring on a wild pitch by Kazmir) and he also beat out an infield nubber fielded by Kazmir. "What David doesn't know," Lowell said, "is that Kazmir ate a sandwich before throwing to first."

Delcarmen (four outs) and Lopez (two) served as the bridge to the ninth, when the Sox broke it open. Mopup duty fell to Eric Gagné.

The scoreboard, meanwhile, concealed the fact that Sox batters whiffed 17 times, a matter of little consequence when the other team scored seven fewer runs. Beckett had his win, and his Dom.

And Lowell became the first Sox third baseman to hit 20-plus home runs in consecutive seasons. He took some pride in that, more so because he doesn't fashion himself a home run hitter.

"If David hit 20," he said, "he'd probably want to kill himself."

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