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Red Sox power their way to series win

Red Sox power their way to win

BOSTON -- A Sunday afternoon that had been pure bliss for the Red Sox for six innings had suddenly turned into an extremely stressful experience by the time Hideki Okajima strode to the mound with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the seventh.

A lead that had been seven runs just minutes earlier, was down to three. And A.J. Pierzynski had a chance to tie the game with one swing, or even put the White Sox in front, if he truly got a hold of one. But it never got that far. Okajima restored order, just as he's done for the majority of his inaugural Major League season.

The lefty blew an 89-mph fastball by Pierzynski for strike three, and the Red Sox, despite some more anxious moments in the ninth, were able to pull out an 8-5 victory over the White Sox.

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"He's been a blessing for us," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of Okajima. "He just continues to pound the strike zone with various pitches and stay out of the middle of the plate. He's just a really good pitcher."

So, too, is Jonathan Papelbon. But the All-Star closer, who hadn't pitched since Wednesday, loaded the bases with nobody out in the ninth.

Suddenly, the ever-dangerous Jim Thome was at the plate. After falling behind 2-0 to Thome, Papelbon came back in a big way, blowing a 96-mph heater by the veteran slugger.

"That's what I had to have," Papelbon said. "That's what I was going for. That's a situation where you've got their best hitter up and you've got to be able to punch him out or get it hit in the infield. That was my whole focus."

Papelbon then got a game-ending double play off the bat of Paul Konerko, and the Red Sox were able to complete the homestand at 6-5 after losing five of the first eight. The Red Sox maintained their 7 1/2-game lead in the American League East over the surging Yankees.

Heading into a seven-game road trip at Cleveland and Tampa Bay, one thing is clear: The Red Sox have found their offense. They finished the homestand by pounding out 29 runs over the last three games.

"Our offense looked really good these last few days. That's a good sign," said Sox third baseman Mike Lowell.

Before all the late-inning drama in the bullpen, the Red Sox were having an Earl Weaver kind of day. The erstwhile Orioles manager was a most avid fan of solid starting pitching and three-run homers.

Tim Wakefield was floating his knuckleball out of reach of the frustrated White Sox over his first six innings of work. And Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell had both produced Weaver's knock of choice, staking the Sox to an 8-1 lead after six.

But after Wakefield (6 2/3 innings, six hits, four runs) gave up a single, a double, a sac fly and an RBI single to open the seventh, Francona went to reliever Manny Delcarmen, who had been ridiculously hot of late. This time, Delcarmen couldn't get it done. The first four batters he faced all reached base, two of which were walks, and the White Sox chipped it to 8-5. Okajima made sure it got no closer.

"For me today, it was just one of those days," Delcarmen said. "Okajima came in and bailed me out of a big situation like he's been doing all year."

Okajima (1 1/3 innings, no hits two strikeouts) lowered his ERA to 0.92. Wakefield picked up the win to improve to 11-9.

"I felt good," said Wakefield. "Probably the best I've felt in three or four starts. For the first six innings and seventh inning, they strung a couple of hits together and chased me out of the game."

It was career appearance No. 500 for the venerable Wakefield.

"I've been blessed to be able to wear this uniform for as long as I have, and to be able to get in that many games," said Wakefield. "It's pretty special for me."

The day was not very special for White Sox starter Jon Garland. He dug himself a hole right away, walking two in the bottom of the first and then surrendering a three-run homer that Manny Ramirez roped to the opposite field in right-center. Ramirez hit .385 with a double, four homers and 13 RBIs on the homestand.

"He's always been one of the greatest right-handed hitters of our generation," said Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. "He can drive the ball to all fields."

In the sixth, Garland again issued two walks, this time when the bases were empty with two outs. Lowell made him pay, lining one just over the Monster in left to make it 6-1 Sox.

"Two-seamer in," said Lowell. "I was able to keep my hands inside. I'm glad it didn't topspin. It stayed up. It was three big runs for us."

It was a classic case in point of the rewards you can get when an offense is in a relentless frame of mind.

"We say it all the time about spreading it out so if somebody makes a mistake or somebody loses the strike zone, it doesn't cost you the ballgame," said Francona. "I thought that today that was the case."

And those strenuous moments the bullpen endured? Just a temporary nuisance.

"That was agonizing, but it's a heck of a lot better than losing or being behind," said Francona. "We finished the day like we set out to do. It wasn't very easy, but sometimes it's not."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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