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For Red Sox, time is now

ATLANTA -- When Manny Ramirez was asked about seeming to take it upon himself to replace "Cowboy Up" with a new Red Sox slogan -- "This is the year" -- he put it pretty bluntly.

"This has to be the year," he said with a smile. "There won't be anybody left [afterward]."

Signed through 2008 (with team options for '09 and '10), Ramirez yesterday was the rock in a sea of long-term uncertainty as the Sox prepared to open the 2004 season tonight in Baltimore against the Orioles. In a scenario that once seemed unfathomable, the Sox will begin the quest for their first world championship in 86 years without Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, and Jason Varitek signed beyond this year. The list of potential free agents also includes David Ortiz, Pokey Reese, and Scott Williamson.

To Ramirez, who not long ago felt as if he had nine toes in Texas and one in Boston as the Sox tried to trade him for Alex Rodriguez, this is the year. To others, it's the last roundup on Yawkey Way. And to some, it's simply time to get started regardless of the contract conundrum or key injuries to Garciaparra and Trot Nixon.

"We feel great," Kevin Millar said after the Sox dropped their exhibition finale, 5-0, to the Braves and prepared to board a plane for Baltimore. "We're going to get Trot and Nomar healthy, but until then we've got guys who will step up. And as far as the contracts go, everybody signed for 2004. That's all that matters. We're playing right now for this season. It's not about worrying about next year, next year, next year. It's all about this year."

The Sox will enter the season with one of the most fearsome pitching staffs in franchise history, led by Martinez, who has been irked about persistent questions about the velocity of his fastball this spring and is expected to unleash his wrath tonight against the Orioles. He has not been charged with a loss in his six Opening Day starts, though the Sox have gone winless in his last three opening starts.

Martinez and Curt Schilling could form one of the most devastating 1-2 combos in the game. Lowe looks as sharp as he did when he went 21-8 and challenged for the Cy Young Award in 2002. Tim Wakefield has given every indication he could rank as one of the most productive fourth starters in baseball. And Bronson Arroyo, the reigning International League pitcher of the year, is expected to serve as a solid fifth starter at least until Byung Hyun Kim returns from a strained right shoulder.

The Sox also have Ramirez at full health to anchor much of the lineup that last year led the majors in batting (.289), runs (961), hits (1,667), doubles (371), extra-base hits (649), total bases (2,832), sacrifice flies (64), slugging (.491), on-base percentage (.360), and overall offensive thrills.

The bullpen generally has looked solid as well, an encouraging contrast from last spring. Yet a number of questions have surfaced about a team that looked rock solid when players began reporting to camp seven weeks ago. Notable among them:

How sharp will Martinez be after a rather lackluster spring in which he posted a 6.75 ERA and opponents hit .290 against him?

How quickly will prized closer Keith Foulke recover from an abominable exhibition season in which he logged a 15.00 ERA and allowed batters to whack him around at a .395 clip?

How much will the team's production drop with Pokey Reese and Mark Bellhorn playing shortstop and second base (at least for a month) after Garciaparra and Todd Walker ranked among the top hitters at the positions last season?

How much will Nixon be missed?

"I'm not worried about it," Wakefield said of the potential impact of the injuries. "I think we're very, very deep at every position. During the course of the year, you're still going to have to rely on the guys who are on the bench. It takes 25 guys to win championships, but it's better [the injuries] happened now than in the middle or toward the end of the season when you need guys in the clutch."

The last thing the Sox expect to do is lower their sights. They are ranked among the preseason favorites to advance to the World Series.

"The Yankees didn't have Derek Jeter last April and they started 18-3, so I don't see any need to lower expectations," general manager Theo Epstein said. "Our expectations are to play well, to be very well prepared for every game and go out and try to win every single game. Obviously, we're not at 100 percent right now. But that's baseball reality. Baseball reality is good players on the DL. It's players playing when they're not 100 percent. It's key players going through slumps. We're just facing our baseball reality early. It won't be that way for the whole season."

The Sox invested less in their bench this year than they did a year ago, but the current corps appears plenty competent, with Ellis Burks, Brian Daubach, and David McCarty providing some pop, Doug Mirabelli backing up Varitek, and Cesar Crespo serving as a versatile utilityman (and the lone backup at short).

"If we're not strong enough to withstand a couple of key injuries this early in the season, then we're not good enough to win the whole thing anyway," Epstein said. "Other guys will have to step up. It will be a challenge for us, but it won't be the last challenge along the way."

The possibility exists that the uncertain futures of the core players could become a distraction, but the front office is hoping for the best.

"I've said all along, it's far from an ideal situation, but all we can do is follow the best course of action for the organization short term and long term, balancing those interests," Epstein said. "Tomorrow is the first game of the season, and that's really the most important thing right now. The other situation will resolve itself through the course of the year. I hope it resolves itself in a manner that is really satisfactory to all the parties but I'm not going to spend every minute of every day worrying about it. We've got 162 games and hopefully more to play."

The first one is scheduled to start in a 29-degee windchill. But first-year manager Terry Francona vowed nothing would deter his team.

"The season starts, so we take our guys and go play," he said. "If you feel sorry for yourself about who you don't have, you just feel sorry for yourself. We're not going to do that."

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