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Settling their roles

For Embree, longer stay would be relief

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Alan Embree's spring training message to the Red Sox: Tear up my contract.

Embree, the only lefty on a team that may urgently need him at his best to reach the promised land, wants a new deal. Not because he's unhappy about his two-year, $6 million contract that runs through this season (he can trigger a $3 million option for next year by appearing in at least 50 games).

The thing is, he wants to pitch in Boston beyond 2005.

"I'd love to just tear it up and get something else done," Embree said yesterday. "I want to stay. After the last couple of years here, I don't want to play anywhere else. I thought I wanted to go out West, but I'm kind of comfortable where I am."

The Sox would be plenty comfortable with Embree if he continues to pitch like he did against the Yankees and Athletics last year in the playoffs. All he did in eight postseason appearances was pitch 6 2/3 scoreless innings while holding batters to a .190 average.

The other Embree, the one who started the season so miserably that he was exiled back to Florida in April with shoulder tendinitis, need not apply.

The stakes are high, particularly since the Sox sent Casey Fossum, their only other big league lefty, to the Diamondbacks in the deal for Curt Schilling and dealt away two of their top lefty prospects, Jorge de la Rosa (in the Schilling deal), and Phil Dumatrait (to the Reds for Scott Williamson last July). Now they are trying out six lefthanders who altogether pitched only 40 innings last year in the majors.

The Sox are sure to want Embree, 34, to prove his effectiveness again before they entertain talks of a long-term extension. But general manager Theo Epstein was heartened by the way Embree responded to his abysmal start last season. The lefty allowed five runs over 3 2/3 innings in his first four appearances, including an abominable performance in a 6-4 loss to the Devil Rays on Opening Day in Tampa, before the Sox sent him south.

"Last year was important for him because it didn't come easily to him," Epstein said. "He started off really slow. He wasn't in the best physical shape, but he was mature about it and realized he needed to improve. He went down to Florida, got his arm strength back, and came back and really had a terrific second half and postseason."

On reflection, Embree was candid about letting down the team. He acknowledged he failed to report to camp last year in top condition, which led to shoulder trouble. What's more, he said he pressed to compete for the vacant closer's job, only to aggravate matters.

"I didn't prepare myself, so I didn't get the opportunity I wanted to get," he said. "I failed myself."

The irony is: The response among the fans in Boston to the bullpen's woes in general and Embree's in particular ranks high among the reasons he wants to stay.

"I love the intensity," he said. "My mentality is much better suited to this brand of baseball. I'm a guy that if it doesn't count, I'm going to [stink]. I've proved that. I like it when the game's on the line. You saw how many games we blew at the beginning of last season. That just wasn't acceptable, and I love that."

Embree has thrived on big-game pressure since his rookie season at age 25, when he was the first reliever out of the bullpen for the Indians against the Braves in the 1995 World Series. He logged a 2.70 ERA in four appearances in the Series, but he started so slowly the next spring training that his manager, Mike Hargrove, skewered him in the press.

"He's a hundred percent on this team, but he's doing a hell of a job trying to get off it," Embree quoted Hargrove as saying.

The problem?

"It was because I couldn't find the same adrenaline I had in those [Series] games," he said.

Embree has had a roller-coaster career ever since, peaking in 2002 when he posted a 2.18 ERA in 68 games for the Padres and Sox. He finished last season 4-1 with a 4.25 ERA in 65 games, the most appearances by a Sox lefthander since Tony Fossas made 71 outings in 1993.

This year, he has a chance to trigger his option for '05 by late summer if he remains healthy, since he has appeared in at least 55 games every season since 1997.

Whether he can help propel the Sox to glory is another question, which he believes he can answer affirmatively.

"I've been through peaks and valleys my whole career and I've always come out on top," he said. "You just have to be confident enough to make it through the hard times."

As for Embree's long-term prospects in Boston, Epstein had no intention of tipping his hand. But he welcomed Embree's desire to stick around.

"That's great to hear players come to Boston and want to stay," Epstein said. "We heard this winter from a lot of players and agents who said, `Hey, the Red Sox went from the worst clubhouse in the league to the best clubhouse. I'd love to play there.' It's an advantage we have now."

Just ask Embree.

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