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AL PLAYOFFS NOTEBOOK

Little is happy to credit Narron

OAKLAND, Calif. -- With two managerial jobs opening yesterday with the dismissals of Jerry Manuel by the White Sox and Mike Hargrove by the Orioles, Red Sox bench coach Jerry Narron figures to hear his name surface as a candidate to return to a job he held until being fired by the Texas Rangers last season. On Sunday, Grady Little gave Narron high marks for the job he has done with the Sox.

"I don't see how there could be a person any better than that guy to have around," Little said. "He and I are a lot alike. We see things a lot the same way, but he doesn't hesitate to voice a different opinion and his true feelings. A lot of times they're exactly like mine, but if they were the same all the time, one of us wouldn't be necessary.

"The bench coach is very important, mainly because of the time a manager has to allot each day -- starting from the first day of spring training to the end of the season -- to a lot of things that are not related to what is going on on the field. You have to have someone like Jerry Narron, to make sure things are being run the way they're supposed to be run, while the manager is busy taking care of other stuff. This guy is as important as the manager."

Healthy outlook Since his recovery from the treatment he was undergoing for bladder cancer, pitching coach Tony Cloninger has spent a great deal of time with Scott Williamson in hopes that the reliever will regain the form that made him such an attractive acquisition when Theo Epstein traded for him before the July 31 deadline. Williamson has had major personal issues involving the health of his wife and newborn child, and he has acknowledged that their condition has made it difficult for him to focus on the field. But both mother and child are out of the hospital, and the Sox believe that Williamson could be a key part of the bullpen in the postseason, even closing in some situations. That would certainly be true if the Sox meet the Yankees in the ALCS because of Byung Hyun Kim's well-publicized problems against the Bombers. Kim is likely to be used in relief if the Sox and Yankees meet, leaving a void at the end of the game. Williamson, with his high-90s fastball, certainly has the stuff to close. "As inconsistent as our bullpen has been," Cloninger said, "we've got talent out there. I've seen it happen in the playoffs when I was with the Yankees, that you turn the page. It's a new day, and guys you hardly heard about during the season came up big, like Graeme Lloyd."

The commitments The Oakland A's, whose $50 million payroll is half the size of the Red Sox', have their Big Three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito under contract for two more seasons. Hudson, who opposes Pedro Martinez in Game 1 of the American League Division Series tomorrow night, becomes a free agent after the 2005 season, when he is scheduled to be paid $6.75 million (including any pro-rated signing bonus). The A's hold options for 2006 on both Mulder ($7.25 million) and Zito ($7 million). Star shortstop Miguel Tejada, the league's MVP in 2002 who is being paid $5.125 million this year, and closer Keith Foulke are both free agents after the season. Star third baseman Eric Chavez, due to be paid $5.325 million in 2004, will be a free agent after next season. Other than the Big Three, the only A's player signed through the 2005 season is former Sox catcher Scott Hatteberg, who recently signed a two-year contract extension. The Red Sox already are committed to almost $63 million in salaries next season, not including the $4.5 million option they have yet to exercise on Derek Lowe's contract.

Moral support While Kevin Millar and David Ortiz have gotten most of the credit for changing the Red Sox clubhouse dynamic, and deservedly so, Little said there is another player whose impact should not be overlooked. "Damian Jackson has been as much a catalyst in our dugout and our clubhouse as Millar and Ortiz," said Little, referring to the utilityman whose speed and defense have been a valued component of Boston's success . . . The TV in the Boston bullpen has remained dark ever since Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella objected to it, echoing complaints of his former boss, Seattle GM Pat Gillick. Oakland GM Billy Beane is already on record as dismissing the issue as immaterial, but the TV will remain off during the postseason, per order of Major League Baseball. "We don't cheat; the TV was just one of those things [Larry] Lucchino wanted to do for the boys in the bullpen," Little said. "Last year, we were better on the road. Gol'dang, what did we have, a mobile unit that we were carrying around? How do you explain that?"

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