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Mueller (back spasms) forced to take a seat

Another game, another regular down. At this rate, the Red Sox will qualify for the wild card and have the Pawtucket starting lineup ready to play the A's. Just kidding.

Third baseman Bill Mueller is the latest casualty, although it does not appear he is seriously hurt. Mueller sustained lower-back spasms during Boston's 4-3 victory over the Devil Rays last night and came out of the game. He said afterward that he was not in serious pain and hoped that everything would calm down in the next 24 hours.

"It was just a spasm," said Mueller, who drove in Boston's first run before giving way to Lou Merloni in the fifth inning. "It was something that was progressively getting worse. The accumulated wear and tear from baseball. I'll just try and let it calm down and see what happens."

Manager Grady Little said it was not the first time Mueller had suffered from back spasms this season, although Mueller couldn't recall an earlier episode. "He will be fine, I'm sure," Little said. "I'm sure he'll be back in there as soon as we play again."

Mueller batted third last night in Little's reconfigured lineup and his one hit kept his league-leading batting average at .331.

Damon rain dancing

Johnny Damon is praying for a Biblical deluge this weekend in Cleveland, which is going to get wet from Hurricane Isabel. "I hope it rains [tonight] and Saturday so I can get back," said Damon, who missed his second straight game with an abdominal strain on his lower left side. Damon said he'd like to play tonight, assuming there is a game, and added he wanted to return "as soon as I'm slightly better. We don't have much time. After the season, which hopefully is around Nov. 1, I'll sit on my butt for a couple months." Damon said his strain, which he initially feared was a hernia, hurts the most when he sneezes. "I just have to avoid sneezing," he said. "It's something so simple and it's something you need to do. But it hurts." . . . Jack McCormick, the team's traveling secretary, was not worried about beating the rain to Cleveland. The Red Sox charter was scheduled to leave Logan Airport at 11:30 p.m. and arrive in Cleveland at 1 a.m. McCormick said weather forecasts called for rain to start falling around 4 a.m., by which time the lads should all be in Rapid Eye Movement land . . . Todd Walker batted leadoff for the first time this season and went 2 for 4. He has hit safely in the last nine games at a .429 clip. He also made a big base-running play in the first, tagging from second on a short pop to shallow right that was caught by Devil Rays second baseman Marlon Anderson. Walker said he knows how hard it is to make that kind of play, with one's back to the infield, then turn and throw a strike to third. "If he had done it, I would have tipped my hat to him," Walker said. Anderson didn't and Walker scored on a Mueller single that bounced off Travis Lee's glove. Had Walker not gone to third, he would not have made it home on Mueller's hit.

Scratched Nixon itchy

Trot Nixon, another regular out with an injury (left calf strain), arrived at the park yesterday hoping to see his name on the lineup card. When it wasn't, he said a naughty word and then sought out Little for a chat. When it was over, Little joked, "Nixon's about ready to kill somebody because I won't let him play." Said Nixon, "I understand where he's coming from and he understands that I want to get back on the field. He's the manager. I get to tell him how I feel." Nixon did make an appearance as a designated hitter Wednesday night. Like everyone else, he popped out . . . The win last night was Boston's 50th at Fenway Park, the 23d time in club history that they've reached 50 wins at home. The last time was in 1998, when they went 51-30. There are four home games remaining, all against Baltimore . . . Devil Rays starter Rob Bell gave up three runs on seven hits in the first three innings and never saw the fourth. He lasted only 42 pitches. Reliever Chad Gaudin was whacked around by Boston on Monday, but pitched pretty well last night, allowing only one run (a Manny Ramirez homer) and two hits over the final five innings . . . After missing the last two games with what he said was a case of food poisoning (bad fried chicken from room service), Kevin Millar was back in the lineup. Millar went 1 for 3 and is trying to work his way out a nasty slump that saw him go 2 for 27 prior to the two-game respite . . . Nomar Garciaparra remained in the No. 2 spot for the third straight game and went 1 for 4 to stay at .307, his lowest average since May 28.

Long shots

A three-way tie among the Red Sox, Mariners, and A's is still a long shot, but Major League Baseball quietly announced 10 days ago changes in the tiebreaking procedure that would now require the Sox to play either the A's or Mariners in a one-game playoff. Previously, the A's and Mariners would have played a one-game playoff for the AL West title with the loser being eliminated from the playoffs and the Red Sox getting the wild-card because the one-game playoff would have counted in the standings. Now, however, the A's and Mariners would play Sept. 29 with the the winner getting the AL West. The loser would play the Sox Sept. 30 for the wild-card spot. The Sox have lost coin flips with both and would play at either Oakland or Seattle Sept. 30.

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