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Comic relief after win bottled down

CLEVELAND -- A great pitcher? No, Pedro Martinez is a superhero. And that's not an exaggeration.

It was true even before he set down 11 little Indians on strikes, danced out of trouble in the seventh inning -- the same spot the Sox came unraveled the night before -- and with the help of a (insert sigh of relief here) newly watertight Sox bullpen emerged a 2-0 winner here yesterday in a game that reduced the Sox' magic number to 5 after Seattle lost to Oakland.

Martinez is not the only superhero on the Sox. Nomar Garciaparra (whose charity is sponsoring the project), Manny Ramirez, and Johnny Damon are also featured in a new comic book that pits the Sox against -- in the words of a press release -- "the evil empire . . . of Curmudgeonly Vein and His Rock Monsters." No, Larry Lucchino was not involved in naming his nemesis.

"I never read comic books," said Sox pitcher Derek Lowe, who will have a chance to see this one when it's distributed at Fenway Park Wednesday. "But if it was up to me, I'd give Pedro a big arm, like a big, muscular Hulk Hogan-type arm."

Damon says he was a late entry in the book. "It was supposed to be Shea [Hillenbrand]," he said. "They colored in the face and superimposed me on Shea."

Damon said of Martinez, "I'd have his arm turn into anything -- turn into a spear, have lightning bolts come out of his hand."

Which is a bit like what Cleveland pinch hitter Angel Santos -- the same Angel Santos who didn't endear himself to teammates in 2001 by big-leaguing it with the Sox after his call-up from Pawtucket -- saw when Martinez struck him out with the bases loaded to end the seventh.

"That seventh inning, man, God almighty," said Kevin Millar, who had two hits and had an RBI ground out in the fourth when the Sox scored their only runs, when Todd Walker was hit by a pitch, and Ramirez doubled him home, took third on an overthrow, and came across on Millar's roller to short.

"He always has that extra level where he can be 88-90, then go 93, 95, 95, see you later. That's what the best do."

The Sox had hoped to scale back Martinez some in this start, and through six innings, the plan was on track. Only one Indian -- rookie Jody Gerut, who doubled with two out in the first -- advanced as far as second through the first six innings, and the only other Indians hits were singles by Travis Hafner in the second and Jhonny "The Roaming H" Peralta in the fifth.

But after making Alex Escobar his 10th whiff victim to start the seventh, Martinez hit his only bump, walking Ben Broussard and giving up a ground-ball single just out of the limited reach of second baseman Walker. Martinez retired Hafner on a fly to center, but then walked pinch hitter Josh Bard on a 3-and-2 curveball that Martinez and the Sox dugout were convinced should have been strike three.

"He got screwed -- unbelievable," said Damon, who from his vantage point in center field thought the inning should have been over. "But he battled and showed a lot of poise."

Martinez actually fell behind the lefthanded-hitting Santos, 2 and 0. Then, the bolts shot out of his hands. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh. Santos swung and missed at the last one, and Martinez was done for the day.

The day before, the Sox had blown a 4-1 lead in the seventh. No one for a moment thought the same thing could happen with Martinez on the hill.

"When Pedro somehow or another gets in a situation like that seventh inning," manager Grady Little said, "there's nobody else you'd rather have on the mound to try to get out of it. That's the way he's been his whole career. That's the way he's been my two years as manager."

Martinez is now 14-4, and his league-best ERA is down to 2.25. He has won six of his last seven decisions, including four in a row in September, a month in which he has allowed three earned runs in 30 innings. That translates to an ERA of 0.90.

Done for the season? Hardly. He is scheduled to make one more start Friday against the Devil Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla., but in a perfect world, the Sox will have clinched by then and he'll only work a few innings.

His next start would come Oct. 1 in Oakland, Calif., Game 1 of the AL Division Series.

Little was asked if Martinez, who threw 115 pitches yesterday, would be available to come back on three days' rest for a Game 4. Yankees manager Joe Torre already has said he'll use four pitchers in the first round, because of the short turnaround between games. In 1998, even with the Sox down, 2 games to 1, to the Indians, Jimy Williams passed on Martinez in Game 4, opting for Pete Schourek instead. Schourek went 5 1/3 scoreless innings, but the Sox lost.

"It all depends on how his previous game goes, how he's feeling," Little said. "I wouldn't necessarily rule it out. Pedro physically is as good right now as he has been this season. It's kind of a wait-and-see thing."

But what if the Sox really needed him?

"I think there's no doubt about that," Little said. "We need him to pitch four games this week, but we can't do that, you know what I mean? His health is our No. 1 concern."

But as any comic book reader could tell you, superheroes don't bleed. They leap over tall buildings with a single bound, or throw lightning bolts out of their hands.

That may have been why Little was in such a good mood yesterday morning, despite the ghastly 13-4 loss Saturday night. When he awoke, Little said, he prayed.

"I told the man upstairs, `Don't give me any more help than you give the other team,' " Little said, " `but don't give me any less. Amen.' I got dressed and came over to the park."

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