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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Star is in alignment

Put the load on Pedro. And say goodbye to the ace for a while. If things go according to plan, Pedro Martinez won't pitch in Fenway Park again this year until the ALCS against the Yankees, Twins, or White Sox.

The math works out perfectly. Martinez, a masterful 3-2, complete-game winner over the Devil Rays last night, is doing his best pitching of the season and is lined up for maximum work for the (increasingly inevitable) Red Sox postseason.

Martinez (13-4, 2.34) pitches again Sunday in Cleveland. That puts him on schedule to make his last regular-season start a week from Friday in Tampa. And that sets him up to pitch the first game of the playoffs at Oakland Oct. 1, with four days of rest. Because there is one off day in the opening round, Pedro will be set to pitch Game 5, which would also be in Oakland.

Come to think of it, there's no sense in even bringing Pedro back from the Bay area. He could stay in San Francisco and wait for the

Division Series to return, while the Sox come home to play Games 3 and 4 at Fenway over the weekend. It would save him 6,000 miles of flying and he'd be available to light the torch for the Golden Gate Games. (OK, I made that one up. Just kidding.) Let the record show that Pedro is back at the top of his game now that it matters most. In a season in which he's been plagued by pharyngitis, a sore shoulder, a bruised ego, inept relievers, and scant run support, he finally looks like the Pedro of old. He has thrown three straight gems since that unfortunate Saturday afternoon loss to the Yankees. His starts once again come with a feeling of certain Sox victory, and that bodes well for Boston's postseason chances.

"We like the way he's throwing the ball," said satisfied manager Grady Little, who invited impeachment when he went out to visit Pedro with two outs and one on in the ninth.

"We just look forward to riding on his back whenever he takes the mound," added catcher/spokesman Jason Varitek.

Last night's tidy game was played on the 38th anniversary of Dave Morehead's Fenway no-hitter against the Indians. That was also the day Tom Yawkey finally fired racist general manager Mike Higgins and replaced him with Dick O'Connell, who would change the course of Red Sox history by making shrewd trades and developing players of color. Luis Tiant, who is still around, was the losing pitcher in the Morehead no-no, and Lee Thomas, who is still around, homered for the Red Sox. The reported attendance that day was 1,247 but old-timers will tell you that it was a significantly smaller gathering. Those were the days when every day was Foul Ball Day at Fenway; when everybody really did know your name at the ballpark.

Pedro's no-hit bid last night was broken up by Toby Hall, who rapped a line shot off the wall in left-center to start the third. Johnny Damon made a nifty play on the carom, gunning down Hall as the Rays catcher slid into second in quest of a double. It was the only hit surrendered by Martinez in the first five innings.

The Dominican Diva didn't give up another hit until Hall (has he been hanging out at the Ritz with Enrique Wilson?) doubled to right-center to lead off the sixth. It was still a 1-0 game and Pedro had to bear down. No problem. He got the next three batters on grounders and Hall was stranded at third.

He got out of a tougher jam in the seventh. After surrendering a leadoff triple to Aubrey Huff, Martinez got Travis Lee and Marlon Anderson (Tampa's Nos. 4 and 5 hitters) on back-to-back popups, then blew away Damian Rolls on three pitches, the last a 93-m.p.h. heater, his best fastball of the night.

The Rays finally reached him for a run in the eighth. He walked Julio Lugo to start the inning. Lugo took second on a ground out. With the count 2-and-2 on pinch hitter Al Martin, Varitek went out to talk with Martinez. Martin stroked the next pitch to right for an RBI single and it was a 1-1 game. Pedro retired the next two hitters, and the Sox won it for him with two in the bottom of the eighth.

He came out to a huge ovation for the ninth. Fans were chanting, "Pedro, Pedro." With two outs and nobody aboard, the Rays put together a couple of hits and scored a second run. With the go-ahead run at the plate, Grady came out to chat. Byung Hyun Kim was ready in the bullpen, but the fans wanted Pedro.

"I just wanted to make sure he had enough left to get the job done," said Little. "He said, `This is my man.' "

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

Little went with the people's choice and Martinez induced a popup to clinch his 100th career win with the Red Sox. After accepting congratulations from teammates, he came off the field and flipped the game ball to owner John Henry.

"I gave it back to him," said an appreciative, almost embarrassed Henry. "He didn't realize it was his 100th win."

Martinez isn't reaching the mid-90s on the radar gun anymore, but that doesn't matter when he has command of all four pitches.

"He's not as dominant or powerful, but he's as masterful," said GM Theo Epstein. "He doesn't crank it up until there's a man on second base."

So there. After a strange year of sulk and silence, Pedro Martinez is giving the Sox what they need when it matters most. And they have him lined up for maximum impact in the postseason, which cannot be a comfort if you hit for the A's, Yankees, White Sox, or Twins.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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