EVEN WITH THE YANKEES 10.5 GAMES BACK, there are always reasons to keep watching. For one, the return of the Rocket means there’s never enough distance between the Sox and the surging Yanks (their pitchers are pitching, their bats are hitting, their runners are stealing, and they’ve won 8 of their last 10, including a five-game winning streak and a Chien-Ming Wang complete game victory).

But beyond the ever-present fear of a Yankees uprising and Red Sox collapse (once a Red Sox fan always a Red Sox fan), there are also the little rewards that baseball bestows upon those who stick with the long season. Like taking satisfaction in watching wily Julian Tavarez (6 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 5 SO) put up about the same pitching line as Clemens (6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 7 SO) – for approximately a gazillion dollars less per game.

Or there’s Schilling getting one out away from a no-hitter, shaking off Varitek’s call for a slider (“He’s swinging”), and banking on his fastball instead (“He’s taking”), on that fateful (second-to-last) at-bat against Oakland’s Shannon Stewart. Or, as Schill himself puts it in his blog:

Now comes the infamous ‘shake’. In talking with Tek after the game it’s clear to me that he was 100% spot on with his thought, and I was completely wrong with mine. Why would he take a strike at this point? I had gone to 1 three ball count all day. I wasn’t going to walk him and the only thing you do at that point, by taking a strike, is allow me freedom to use my split. There was no way in hell he was taking. I was sure otherwise. So I shake off the slider, execute the pitch I want, and he lines it to right.

It was a game of minor statistical importance (hey, we’re 10.5 games ahead!) played on a school day, so many of us caught on late that potential history was in the making. But that’s because we’re cubicle monkeys, checking in on the team between meetings and emails. Big Papi, however, realized what was going on even later than the rest of us, and he was actually there:

It was Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills who alerted the media to the fact David Ortiz was in the dark about Schilling taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning.

“Ortiz came up to me and said, ‘I swear on my children, I didn’t know it was a no-hitter,’ ” said Mills, who had the manager’s office to himself after the game because Terry Francona decided Mills deserved some attention after his son, Beau, was drafted by Cleveland in the first round (13th overall). “After the game, he came up to us. You can go ask him.”

Francona said Ortiz told him the same thing, and the big man owned up to his ignorance.

“I didn’t know until after the first out in the last inning,” said Ortiz, whose home run in the first inning gave Schilling the run he needed to win his sixth game against two losses. “That’s when I got nervous. I looked at the board, saw all the zeroes. [First base coach] Luis Alicea, he asked me, ‘What would you do? Would you bring the closer in?’

“He was messing around with me. I was like, ‘He’s pitching good, why bring in the closer? Later on, I looked at all those zeroes, and I see the zero under ‘H,’ I go, ‘Wait a minute.’ I’m looking around and everybody goes, ‘Shhhh.’ That’s when I started getting nervous.”

Utility guy Alex Cora had this response:

Sox infielder Alex Cora was dubious of Ortiz’s claim. “How many people were at that game?” Cora asked. “Thirty thousand? Twenty-five guys on their side, and 24 [on ours] . . . he was the only guy not watching the game.”

And random Red Sox fan Bill Chuck had this:

After reading David Ortiz’s claim that he didn’t know Curt Schilling had a no-hitter in progress Thursday, reader Bill Chuck e-mailed: “The fact that Big Papi was not aware of Schilling’s no-hitter until one down in the ninth can only be attributed to David being Manny.”

So there’s the painfully close bid at a history-making no-hitter — and then there are the little things, like Julio Lugo’s hidden ball trick, which brings its own kind of drama to the June proceedings:

Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell did not see Julio Lugo tag out an unsuspecting Alberto Callaspo Friday night, but he was ready to pronounce judgment on the play.

“That’s not a real hidden-ball trick,” Lowell said yesterday , “although I’m sure the stats say it is.”

Lugo tagged out Callaspo when he strayed off second base, not realizing that Lugo — who had taken a throw from right fielder J.D. Drew — had not returned the ball to pitcher Josh Beckett, even though Beckett said afterward he was calling for the ball.

“I saw it on the replay,” Lowell said, “I didn’t see it while it was going on.”

Lugo said once before he’d executed a similar play, but said the umpire missed it. “I try it all the time,” he said. “It just didn’t work.

“The umpire [Chris Guccione] was right on top of the play.”

Lowell executed a similar play in 2005, when he was with Florida, and it also came against Arizona, when the third baseman tagged out Luis Terrero, who also strayed off the bag with Lowell still in possession of the ball. Why, then, was Lowell’s play superior to Lugo’s?

“Because [Lugo] didn’t have to do anything,” Lowell said. “[Pitcher Todd ] Jones had to sell it more than anyone.

“Jonesie, the only reason I didn’t get rid of the ball was he was backing up home plate. I wasn’t going to throw it to him. So I just waited. Then I glanced over to third and the third base coach and Terrero were both looking down at the time. So I said, I’ll just walk over until Jonesie gets to the mound. If he asks for the ball, I’m going to give it to him. But we made eye contact and he saw me, then he walked around the mound, he’s at the back, he started stretching. We were, honestly, about three seconds away from just forgetting about it because we couldn’t wait anymore. And right there [Terrero] took a step off the bag, and it worked out.”

No-hitters and hidden ball tricks both display some of the particular fun of baseball. It’s a game with a long memory for little things and big things, each moment adding incrementally to a player’s stats while also echoing the accomplishments of games past. So even though it’s a long season in a game with a long history, even the smallest things begin to carry strange significance.

One day, Trot Nixon steps into the batter’s box as a player for the opposing team, but what takes the stage is appreciation for the 13 seasons he spent as an original dirt dog. And on that same day, Kevin Youkilis has the first inside-the-park home run at Fenway since . . . Trot Nixon.

So, Mother’s Day comebacks aside, there are other special moments that have nothing to do with winning and losing that are worth watching.

Or if you don’t buy that, then remember this: 10.5 games is nothing when you’re talking about the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

Suprisingly, it takes a New York Daily News columnist to remind us of how the tides can turn. After all, when the Red Sox were 8.5 games back on July 1, 2004, everyone began to count them out then, as well.