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07/13/08 7:55 PM ET

Sox top O's, take over first place

Dice-K, bullpen shine in finale; Rays fall to Indians

BOSTON -- For Red Sox followers, there must be something enticingly painful about watching Daisuke Matsuzaka take the hill.

Matsuzaka's ERA and hits yielded are brilliant, allowing only one run in his past four starts. But then there are the walks. And Matsuzaka handed out five on Sunday along with a hit batter.

Still, despite hurling 115 pitches in six innings, the Red Sox earned a 2-1 win over the Orioles in the decisive rubber match between the two divisional rivals at Fenway Park. Along with the Rays' loss to the Indians, Boston hit the All-Star break with a half-game lead in the American League East.

Somehow, this Boston team found a way to bounce back from a disappointing 3-7 road trip in which it came home five games back in the division. With the Rays riding a seven-game losing skid, the Sox climbed 5 1/2 games in a week to regain their perch at the top.

"It shows that five games -- it can turn on you in the blink of an eye," Mike Lowell said. "We played good for a week; Tampa Bay struggled a little bit. If anything, it's a reminder to us that we have to keep playing hard and playing well."

The Sox battled to the top of the standings on Sunday. They certainly had to battle from start to finish in their game against the Orioles, too.

Matsuzaka didn't give up a run in the contest, scattering four hits while notching seven strikeouts. Despite the low-scoring affair with few hits on the board, this was a contest where hitters found ways to reach base but could not cross the plate.

"Both sides dodged a lot of runs; fortunately, we dodged one fewer," manager Terry Francona said. "You look up in the ninth and you haven't given up any runs, that's not the way you draw it up. But we still didn't give up anything."

Each team walked seven batters in the contest, with Matsuzaka contributing five and Orioles starter Daniel Cabrera handing out six free passes.

"For me, I think what matters is that the team gets the win," Matsuzaka said through his interpreter. "Also, going five or six innings without any earned runs isn't that bad, is it? I thought that my strength out there was good today."

It didn't come easy for the Sox from start to finish, a testament to Jonathan Papelbon's work in the ninth inning. The All-Star closer allowed a run in the frame before finishing off Melvin Mora with runners on the corners. Despite allowing three hits during an Orioles rally, Papelbon shut the door and earned career save No. 100.

"I was throwing hard, I felt like I was throwing hard, but I was leaving some fastballs over the plate," Papelbon said. "I was getting two strikes on guys, and I was overthrowing a little bit. I tend to do that sometimes."

In fact, it was Mora who personally found ways to strand runners in each of his five plate appearances. Mora left 11 runners on base in the contest, including the fifth inning, when the bases were loaded. He ended the frame in each of his plate appearances.

Still, the Red Sox made sure Matsuzaka got enough run support to notch his 10th win of the season -- despite his personal inconsistencies.

Just as he did one day earlier, J.D. Drew got Boston on the board in the first inning -- this time with an RBI double. Dustin Pedroia added an RBI with a fourth-inning force out, which proved to be enough for the Sox to hand Cabrera the loss.

"This is a tough one to lose," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "They had Cabrera on the ropes a few times, and he didn't buckle. We had Matsuzaka on the ropes, and he didn't buckle. That's baseball."

The two runs would be all the offense Boston generated, but Papelbon and the Sox's bullpen did just enough to sustain the victory. The middle relief did its part, highlighted by Manny Delcarmen's 1 1/3 perfect innings.

"[Success] starts and ends with your pitching," Francona said. "We gave ourselves a chance to win today. We ended up giving up one run. I know we dodged some obstacles along the way, but that's because we made pitches."

With Francona and a slew of Sox players headed to New York for the All-Star Game, Boston can rest assured it will be doing so with a slight lead in the division -- thanks to a hard-fought win at Fenway on Sunday.

"I think Tampa knows that we're not going away," Sean Casey said. "They were playing well, but that's why you play 162 games. You play the season now and see who is in it at the end. We feel like we have a good team, and we'll be right where we need to be in the end."

Mark Remme is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.