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Damon forced out with abdominal strain

Baseball's injury gods appear to have caught up with the Red Sox. After going nearly the entire season with only one position player (Jeremy Giambi) landing on the disabled list, the Sox last night faced the Devil Rays in the heat of the wild-card race with three regulars out of the starting lineup: Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, and Kevin Millar.

Damon was the latest casualty, scratched shortly before game time because of a nagging abdominal strain. He said he suffered the injury about two weeks earlier and tried to play through it. But when the pain surfaced yesterday in his first swing in batting practice, he reported to the trainer's room.

"It's just getting worse," he said. "It hurts every time I stand up, every time I sit down, every time I do anything strenuous, every time I run."

Damon, who did not know how he suffered the injury, did not believe he aggravated it slamming into the Green Monster Tuesday trying to track down a triple by Tampa Bay's Aubrey Huff. But he said the strain had not affected his swing until yesterday. He said he also expected to miss tonight's game and was uncertain when he would return.

"I know my body better than anyone," he said, "and the minute I feel like I'm ready to go, I'll be in there."

Damon, who has hit .301 since the All-Star break, was replaced by Adrian Brown, a Triple A call-up who played parts of the previous six seasons with the Pirates. His best year was 2000, when he hit .315 in 104 games.

Nixon, who strained his left calf Sept. 9, pinch hit for Gabe Kapler in the ninth and popped out to shortstop. Manager Grady Little said Nixon would not start tonight's game. Kapler has hit .389 (7 for 18) filling in for Nixon.

Millar was recovering from food poisoning he believes he contracted from eating fried chicken after Monday night's game. He said he spent Tuesday in bed until about 8 p.m., when he was able to digest some soup. About 10:30 p.m., he was able to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but that was about the only solid food he consumed before last night's game.

"I'm weak because I still haven't eaten a real meal yet," he said, though he indicated he would be available to pinch hit. "I'm just glad it wasn't the flu. That's the one thing I was worried about."

With Millar out, Andy Abad got his second straight start at first base and picked up his first major league hit, a line-drive single to right field off Tampa Bay starter Victor Zambrano with two outs in the fourth inning. The 31-year-old received a rousing ovation, and the Rays gave the ball to the Sox to present to him. He had been 0 for 10.

"That was awesome," Abad said of the ovation. "I've been waiting 11 years for that one hit. It would have been a little better with a win."

Awards are a pick 'em

As the Sox cast their ballots for the annual Players Choice Awards, they ran into considerable trouble trying to settle on a Most Valuable Player. After all, it's hard enough to pick an MVP just for the Sox, considering the abundance of candidates, most notably Nomar Garciaparra, Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Jason Varitek.

"Where would be without any of those guys?" said John Burkett, who has played 14 seasons and gone to the playoffs five times. "It's been amazing as far as that goes. I've never been on a team like this. It's been unbelievable."

Little also said he would be hard-pressed to name a Sox MVP -- or a leading candidate in the American League MVP and Cy Young Award categories. "I think those awards are kind of going to be up for grabs this year," he said.

Tim Wakefield, who was honored as the team's nominee for the annual Roberto Clemente Award for community service, also was one of six finalists on the Players Choice ballot for the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award given to a player whose on-field performance and community contributions "most inspire others to high levels of achievement."

Extraordinary mark

Todd Walker's ninth-inning double set a a major league record as the team's 608th extra-base hit of the season, surpassing the Mariners' 607 in 1996. The Sox have 350 doubles, 23 shy of the record shared by the '97 Sox and '30 Cardinals . . . The game was interrupted when Seattle manager Lou Piniella questioned why the Sox had a television monitor in their bullpen. Since major league rules prohibit the practice, the Sox were ordered to turn it off. "A while back we got approval from the league to put a monitor in our bullpen and the umpire knew nothing of it," Little said. "He needs to see something in writing, so I am sure they will get that taken care of." . . . The Sox were shut out at Fenway for the first time since Aug. 28, 2002, a 7-0 loss to the Yankees . . . The Sox have three players with 15 or more stolen bases -- Damon (28), Garciaparra (17), and Damian Jackson (15) -- for the first time since 1914. Garciaparra stole his 17th in the third inning . . . Little said he was not concerned about Pedro Martinez's ability to bounce back for his next start Sunday in Cleveland after throwing 122 pitches in his complete-game victory Tuesday over the Rays. "This is what we've been working toward all season, to get him to the point where he is right now," the manager said. "It's time to go to work. That's why we give him that extra day throughout the season and treat him like we do, so he's ready to pitch at this time of the year.". . . As much as Sox players support Little, management plans to stand by its commitment to put off discusssing the manager's future until after the season. "We've got our minds on other things right now," Little said . . . The manager flipflopped Walker and Garciaparra for a second straight game, with Garciaparra batting second and Walker third . . . Nixon, who grew up in Wilmington, N.C., and lives there in the offseason, said his family was taking precautions as Hurricane Isabel advanced on the coastal city . . . The Sox considered starting tonight's game earlier in anticipation of the storm but opted to stick with the 7 o'clock start. The Orioles moved their game against the Yankees from the night to the afternoon because of the weather forecast.

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