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RED SOX OUTSLUG YANKS AT THE PLATE

The Boston Red Sox claimed Saturday's bench-clearing fracas featuring Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez could be a spark to save their sagging season. Maybe that was wishful thinking. We'll see. But on an evening when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry made a surprise visit to Fenway Park, early returns were quite positive Sunday.

Boston jumped on New York starter Jose Contreras for six runs over the first two innings and held on for a 9-6 victory over the Yankees to claim two straight wins in the teams' sensational three-game series.

The Red Sox still trail by 7 1/2 games in the American League East, and the teams go their separate ways until reconvening Sept. 17 in the Bronx. And, just as they hoped, the Sox parlayed the emotion from Saturday's brawl-punctuated 11-10 victory into some momentum as they prepare for a 12-game road trip that starts tonight in Baltimore.

"It was a World Series atmosphere and I know a lot of key people were here," said center fielder Johnny Damon, whose three-run homer off the foul pole in right snapped a 2-2 tie in the second and gave the Sox the lead for good. "It was a good day. These last two games were huge. Who knows how we would have come out today if Billy Mueller doesn't hit that home run in the ninth inning (Saturday) to win it for us.

"What games! The fans across America got to see the greatest rivalry in sports."

Damon and Mark Bellhorn broke a 2-2 tie with back-to-back shots in the second off New York starter Contreras (8-4). Kerry, who threw the ceremonial first pitch and then sat in a box seat next to the Boston dugout, exchanged high-fives with several members of his party when Bellhorn's shot cleared the wall.

"It felt like a playoff game even though it was July," said Sox starter Derek Lowe (9-9). "You try to feed off that and use it as a positive."

Right fielder Kevin Millar continued to torment the Yankees with three hits and drove in four more runs.

In the three games against New York, Millar was 10 for 13 with four home runs and eight RBIs. He had been slumping for the last two months and had become the No. 1 target of the Fenway boo birds until this series, when he opened his stance on the advice of Sox ace Curt Schilling.

"Schilling told me that Cal Ripken played 3,000 games and had 20 different stances so it was time for me to make an adjustment," Millar said. "I did and it's worked."

Lowe, the subject of trade rumors all month, had a shaky two-run first that could have been worse had Damon not climbed the center-field wall to snare Hideki Matsui's long drive that was a sacrifice fly instead of a two-run double. But Contreras was worse. He gave up two runs in the bottom of the inning and was nearly knocked out in a four-run second.

Contreras gave up eight runs in 5 1/3 innings and is 0-3 with a 16.43 ERA in his career against the Sox.

"He certainly has proven he can be successful when he's aggressive and goes after people," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "But he was very tentative, a lot more than he's been."

The Red Sox eventually led, 9-2, before Matsui cut the lead on a grand slam to center in the seventh off Mike Timlin. New York had runners at second and third in the eighth but the inning fizzled when Derek Jeter was called out for running inside the lane on the way down to first base after catcher Doug Mirabelli's throw hit him in the back.

"That's just bad luck," said Torre, who agreed with the call.

There were no incidents in the game even though there were three hit batsmen in the first two innings. Both benches were warned when Contreras hit Millar in the back with a pitch in the second, but that appeared to be an overreaction by jittery plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt because it came on a full-count offering and Conteras had been completely erratic to that point.

Varitek did not play because of a sore wrist, apparently aggravated during the fight. Rodriguez went 2 for 4 and was roundly booed at every turn by the crowd.

"Maybe the fight was something we needed," Damon said.

The Yankees, meanwhile, try to regain their fire when they open a three-game series against the Blue Jays tonight in SkyDome in Toronto (7, YES, Radio 550) with Javier Vazquez (11-6) on the mound.

"We certainly need to pitch better than we have in this series," Torre said. "But again, we knew that all year. We can score runs but we still need to go out there and try to control the game a little bit."
e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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