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Long road home; Ortiz breaks out of slump just in time for Sox.

Byline: Greg Beacham

OAKLAND, Calif. - After opening day in Japan, an exhibition weekend in Los Angeles and yet another opener in Oakland, the Boston Red Sox are finally headed back east from the Far East.

And they're still off to a rock-solid start to their crazy season.

Jon Lester pitched three-hit ball into the seventh inning, David Ortiz broke open a scoreless game with a two-run homer and the Red Sox beat the Athletics, 5-0, yesterday.

Kevin Youkilis had a double and a run-scoring single while setting the major league record for consecutive errorless games by a first baseman as the Red Sox defeated the A's for the third time in a four-game series that began last week in Tokyo. Boston won two straight in Oakland, with Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka carrying the Red Sox until their hitters perked up.

"We're certainly not on all cylinders," manager Terry Francona said. "That may be part of the trip ... but what they did today was good enough."

The Red Sox still aren't done with a 16,000-mile trip that included two exhibitions against Japanese teams and a game in front of 115,300 fans at Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum. Boston has a three-game weekend series in Toronto before finally getting back to Fenway Park.

Lester (1-1), who lost his season debut in Japan, didn't allow an Oakland runner to reach second base after the first inning. He retired 10 straight batters before Emil Brown dropped a weak single into right field with two outs in the seventh. Lester then left to a standing ovation from a crowd made up of roughly 75 percent Red Sox fans.

"I don't think the whole Japan thing is as big a deal as everybody is making it out to be," Lester said. "Sure, it was a long flight, but we had a few days to adjust, and now I think it's fine."

Jason Varitek added a ninth-inning homer for Boston, and relievers Bryan Corey and Manny Delcarmen completed the shutout for the World Series champions, who held the A's to one run in the last two games.

Ortiz was hitless in his first 12 at-bats this season before a fifth-inning single. He followed with a drive over the right-field fence against former Red Sox reliever Alan Embree (0-1) as the A's bullpen wasted Rich Harden's second strong start.

"I always do, I don't know why," Ortiz said of his penchant for slow starts. "It's about the same this year. It might be a little more crazy because we've been out of the country for a while."

Lester was matched by Harden, the injury-plagued right-hander who started just four games last year. He yielded four hits and four walks while striking out six and repeatedly escaping trouble in five innings.

"I wanted to keep my pitch count down and get a little deeper into the game," Harden said. "But it was one of those ones today where I kind of battled through it and threw a lot of pitches. I didn't really have any quick innings, so there's no point in pushing it. As the season goes on, we're going to extend it, definitely."

Harden and Lester faced each other last month in Tokyo, with Harden getting the win with nine strikeouts in six innings of three-hit ball.

Youkilis played his 194th consecutive mistake-free game at first base to break Steve Garvey's record for errorless games at their position. Youkilis even made a running, over-the-shoulder catch of Bobby Crosby's foul popup to end the seventh, and he adeptly fielded Jack Cust's grounder to end the game.

The A's gave first base to Youkilis in appreciation, and the ball used on his final putout was sent to the Hall of Fame.

"It's an achievement you never set out to do, but it's a great honor," Youkilis said.

Dustin Pedroia and Youkilis drove in runs as the Red Sox hit five consecutive singles to lead off the eighth, and Varitek added his first homer of the season off A's closer Huston Street in the ninth.

Oakland managed just seven hits in its first two home games, with the pitching-rich Cleveland Indians arriving tomorrow.

"A lot of guys seem to be getting into a little lull at the same time," A's manager Bob Geren said.

"A lot of the guys that are struggling actually swung the bats well in the spring. Just a couple of them are going through it right now, but they'll be fine."

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) Oakland's Alan Embree (41) waits for Boston's David Ortiz to round the bases after his seventh-inning home run. (2) Boston starting pitcher Jon Lester works in the second inning.

PHOTOG: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 3, 2008
Words:783
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