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Dan Shaughnessy

They're not in heaven, but these guys are right up there

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / July 29, 2008

Sitting in the press box at 2:45 Monday afternoon, I noticed activity on the Fenway lawn. Members of the Los Angeles Angels - the team with the best record in the majors - were running the bases. They went from first to third. Over and over.

In that instant, I stopped thinking about Manny Ramírez for a moment and remembered that it's late July and we're supposed to be talking about . . . baseball.

It was then that I decided this space for just one day would be a Manny-free zone.

The Angels are 25 games over .500 in the wake of their 7-5 victory over the Red Sox last night. They are 6-1 against the Sox this season. They have beaten Boston six straight times since April 22.

"If we play well, we can match up with the better teams in our league," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia.

Should the Nation finally be worried about a threat from the Left Coast?

"We're just showing people we can play this game," said Torii Hunter, who knocked Daisuke Matsuzaka out of the game with a three-run homer in the sixth. "We still don't get the respect we deserve. We get no respect. You're going to learn to respect us one day."

"They might be the class of the American League right now," said Sox manager Terry Francona.

We all know the Red Sox swept the Halos in the playoffs in 2004 and again last year. This perhaps creates a false sense of security when measuring the threat from the west. I believe it was me last week who wrote there is nothing to fear because the Sox have the Angels' number in the playoffs.

But it's hard not to love the team from the OC.

Scioscia ranks with the best in the game. He's the one who has them taking batting practice at 2 in the afternoon and running first-to-third drills in high heat and humidity.

The Angels like to force the issue on offense. They swing early in the count and take chances on the bases. Sometimes it blows up in their face, like when Chone Figgins was doubled off first because he was running on a Casey Kotchman pop in the third inning.

It doesn't always end badly, however. In the sixth, the Angels executed a suicide squeeze with Howie Kendrick barreling home from third while the No. 9 hitter, catcher Jeff Mathis, got the bunt down. Other than an outright steal of home, the squeeze is the most exciting play in baseball.

The Angels are a lock for the playoffs. Los Angeles owns a double-digit lead in the American League West and neither the Rangers nor the A's are poised to make a run. Owner Arte Moreno can start printing playoff tickets today.

The same cannot be said for John Henry. We do a lot of speculating about the Red Sox' chances at a third World Series in five seasons, but the Sox have lost six of 10 since the break and the Yankees look more than ready to join the fight in the American League East. New York already made one deadline deal, adding a couple of good players (lefthanded reliever Damaso Marte and outfielder Xavier Nady) and giving up little.

Theo Epstein and his minions will be burning up the phone lines between now and Thursday's trading deadline looking for a long reliever and maybe trying to trade You Know Who.

Whoops, there goes my pledge. Sorry. It's always about Manny these days.

With the Sox trailing, 1-0, in the fourth, Manny cracked a two-run single up the middle and the sellout 37,830 showered him with love. There was less joy in the seventh when he killed a rally with a 6-4-3 double-play grounder and jogged down the line.

In the ninth, Manny crushed a two-out, first-pitch homer off Frankie Rodriguez (44th save, on a pace to shatter Bobby Thigpen's record of 57 set in 1990). Manny got a good look at his homer as it sailed into the Monster seats. Just like when he hit the playoff walkoff off K-Rod last year. This time, it merely turned a 7-4 game into a 7-5 game. No matter. Manny got all of it. It made him the eighth player in baseball history to record at least 14 straight seasons of 20 or more homers. The others are Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Eddie Mathews, Mike Schmidt, and Rafael Palmeiro.

It's pretty clear that the folks who buy tickets to Fenway are not eager to run Manny out of town. Everything is good as long as he hits. Through all the noise and nonsense of the last couple of weeks, Manny has hit safely in 12 of his last 13 games to the tune of .453 (24 for 53) with four homers and 15 RBIs.

Two more days until the trading deadline. Manny will be rumored to be going to the Dodgers, Phillies, Rockies, or Mets. Most likely, he will still be with the Red Sox when the Oakland A's get here Friday. Maybe then we can start talking baseball again. This is, after all, shaping up to be a pretty good pennant race.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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