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RED SOX 3, DEVIL RAYS 2

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Martinez goes distance as Sox take charge of Rays, wild card

It's OK to smile. To hope. To ponder the sweet hereafter, otherwise known as the American League playoffs.

Never mind the ghosts of yesteryear. Forget the angst that overspread the region after the Red Sox dropped two of three last weekend to the White Sox. Even Grady Little finally acknowledged something special may be looming.

And why not? With the Dominican Destroyers -- Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz -- setting the pace, the Sox last night dispatched the Devil Rays, 3-2, before 33,618 at Fenway Park, tightening their grip on the wild-card lead over the faltering Mariners, who bowed to the Rangers, 10-5, to fall 2 1/2 back of Boston.

"The big picture looks pretty good if you ask me," Little said. "We see the standings. We feel good."

Especially since the Mariners are down to their final 11 games, including six against the AL West-leading A's. The Sox, with a dozen games to go, are sitting on their largest lead since the wild-card standings began to matter in early August.

"We're about to be in the playoffs," said Ortiz, marveling at Martinez's excellence the night after a nearly equally impressive performance by Derek Lowe.

Martinez contributed to the good karma by unfurling a complete-game gem, scattering six hits and surviving a last-gasp rally to improve to 13-4. In the process, he strengthened his league leads in ERA (2.34), strikeouts (193), and opponents batting average (.217), among other categories, all but forcing voters to consider him for a fourth Cy Young Award despite his relatively low win total.

"I don't really see how he couldn't be considered," Little said, "if everyone takes everything into consideration."

Ortiz? All he did was single home Nomar Garciaparra in the bottom of the eighth inning to break a 1-1 tie and propel the Sox toward victory. Bill Mueller helped clinch it moments later with a sacrifice fly that knocked in Adrian Brown, who was running for Manny Ramirez.

"We've just got to keep winning the most we can," Ortiz said, "so when we have five or six games left, we can be safe."

Garciaparra set the stage for the decisive rally by cracking a double into the left-field corner leading off the eighth against reliever Travis Harper. After Todd Walker moved Garciaparra to third by grounding to second, Harper intentionally walked Ramirez, bringing up Ortiz.

"I tell you, this is the guy we want up there in a situation just like that," Little said. "Regardless of who is on the mound, he has been steady for us in those situations all year."

The Rays summoned lefthander Joe Kennedy to face the lefthanded-hitting Ortiz, who was hitless in three career at-bats against Kennedy. No sweat. After Kennedy fell behind in the count, 3-and-0, Ortiz kept up the pressure until he laced a 3-and-2 pitch to right to knock in Garciaparra and make it 2-1.

"Every time they walk Manny," Ortiz said, "it kind of pumps me up. It puts me in a situation that I have to do something for the team."

Ramirez helped by hustling into third base just ahead of the throw, clearing the way for Mueller to knock in Brown.

"That's everybody doing their jobs," Garciaparra said. "It wasn't just one person, so that's pretty huge."

Martinez had masterfully escaped threats after the Rays put the leadoff batters in scoring position in the sixth and seventh innings before he proved vulnerable in the eighth. With the Sox leading, 1-0, Martinez walked Julio Lugo leading off. After Lugo reached second on Toby Hall's ground out, Rays manager Lou Piniella sent out veteran Al Martin to hit for Jared Sandberg, who was a career 0 for 8 against Martinez compared with Martin's 12-for-43 mark.

Martin responded by lashing a 2-and-2 pitch toward the right-field corner for a single, knocking in Lugo to forge the 1-1 deadlock. Martinez and catcher Jason Varitek had conferred before the pitch.

"We both wanted to get him off the changeup and take a shot with what Pedro does real well, an elevated fastball," Varitek said. "We didn't quite elevate it. It turned out being a decent pitch on the corner, and he did a good job of hitting. But it wasn't what we were trying to do, obviously."

The Sox found themselves in a nail-biter largely because of Tampa Bay starter Jeremi Gonzalez, a 28-year-old Venezuelan who nearly matched Martinez's mastery, allowing only one run on three hits before a high pitch count (120) forced him out after six innings. Before Gonzalez underwent two surgeries on his knee and one on his elbow, he showed great promise with the Cubs, going 11-9 in 1997 to post the most wins by a Cubs rookie since Ken Holtzman in 1966. And Gonzalez gave the Sox fits.

"He matched Pedro pretty much the whole game," said Walker, who managed one of the three hits off Gonzalez. "He was very tough to hit."

As tough as Pedro also was to hit, the Rays took a run at him in the ninth when they scored one run and put the tying run at second with two outs. At that, Little visited the mound, but the crowd began chanting, "Pedro, Pedro."

No chant necessary.

"Petey wasn't about to give him the ball even if he asked for it," Varitek said.

Martinez quickly recorded the third out, a popup, as the glow in the Fens grew ever rosier.

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