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DEVIL RAYS 9, RED SOX 4

Bad case of shakes

Martinez gets knocked around again in final start before playoffs

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- As long as the last ember flickered in their fading bonfire of opportunity, the Red Sox planned to keep hope alive. As long as they clung to a faint chance of catching the Yankees for the American League East title, they vowed to play as if they could achieve the unfathomable.

So they forged ahead last night even as the division race all but consumed them. While the Yankees swept a twinbill from the Twins in the Bronx, the Sox tried for a second straight night to overcome a shaky outing by their starter, this one the inimitable Pedro Martinez, who will take the ball in Game 2 of the Division Series after Curt Schilling pitches the opener. But this time the Sox fell short, bowing to the Devil Rays, 9-4, before 21,274 at Tropicana Field to help the Yankees reduce their magic number to clinch the division to one.

"It was a big swing," manager Terry Francona said as he prepared for the possibility of imminent elimination. "We've tried very hard to acknowledge the importance of winning the East. We don't downplay that one bit, but we also have to use our very best judgment [in looking ahead]."

Good thing the Sox already have a playoff berth in hand. The Sox need to sweep their final four games in Baltimore and hope the Yankees go 0-4, which would give the Sox their first division title since 1995 via the tiebreaker since they won the season series, 11-8. Otherwise, one Sox loss or Yankee victory guarantees the Sox start the Division Series on the road as the wild card.

"Crazy things can happen in this game, but our main concern is not what's going on in the standings," said Trot Nixon, who homered in the losing cause before the Sox departed for Baltimore and the final four games of the regular season. "We need to play good baseball. I think everybody can agree we want to do that this weekend."

The Rays may not be Martinez's daddy, but they had their way with him nonetheless, knocking him around for six runs (five earned) on 10 hits, a walk, and a hit batsman just five days after his infamous collapse against the Yankees in the Fens. Martinez hit a season-high 96 miles per hour on the radar gun, but he lasted only five innings as he fired a whopping 109 pitches and allowed the leadoff batter to reach base every inning he pitched.

Francona wanted to stop the bleeding after the fourth inning, but Martinez insisted on staying in the game after throwing only 89 pitches. He forcefully reminded Francona and pitching coach Dave Wallace that they had told him the night before he would not pitch again until Wednesday in Game 2 of the Division Series, a six-day layoff.

"I just didn't reach my pitch limit, and since I'm not going to pitch Game 1, it was probably worth it for me to go out there and complete all my pitches," he said. "I'd be embarrassed to leave the game without a reason after four innings."

The loss, in his final appearance of the regular season, dropped Martinez to 2-4 with a 4.95 ERA in September, ending the chance he harbored at the beginning of the month to contend for his fourth Cy Young Award. He finished the season 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA, his highest ERA in 12 full major league seasons. And he lost a fourth straight start for the first time since dropping the first four of his career with the Dodgers from Sept. 30, 1992, to April 8, 1994.

In one breath, Martinez expressed no concern about his worst slump in more than a decade.

"I'd like the results to be better, but I'm healthy, I feel great, and I just have to continue to pitch and work hard," he said. "Hopefully, the playoffs will be different."

But he was more frank about his struggles when reflecting on following Schilling in the postseason rotation.

"I should actually pitch No. 5 or not even pitch in the playoffs," he said, "if I continue to pitch the way I have."

After Martinez stuck the Sox in a 6-3 hole through five innings, the Rays put the game out of reach when Tino Martinez tagged Alan Embree for a three-run homer in the eighth, with two of the runs charged to Byung Hyun Kim.

The defeat snapped a four-game winning streak for the Sox as they lurched to the brink of elimination in the division. The outcome left them relieved they secured a consolation berth.

"Our goal was to make it to the playoffs," Mark Bellhorn said. "It would be nice to win the division and have the home-field advantage, but I think this team is ready to play whether we have the home-field advantage or not."

It may have seemed as if the Sox sensed looming doom in the division when Francona pulled one of the team's top MVP candidates, Manny Ramirez, in the fifth inning for a pinch runner, Adam Hyzdu. But Francona indicated he was protecting Ramirez's nagging hamstrings.

"He's tender and I don't want him to be tender," the manager said. "He really wanted to play tonight, but I just don't want him dragging that leg."

As it turned out, Hyzdu pulled a Ramirez in the eighth inning, launching a solo home run, the first long ball of his Sox career. But other than Nixon's homer, David Ortiz's RBI single, and Bill Mueller's sacrifice fly, the Sox lacked the strength to overcome Martinez's latest lapse.

Martinez insisted he wanted badly to end the season on a positive note.

"I wanted to really snap out of it," he said.

But Francona seemed impressed only with the sequence in which Martinez ratcheted up his intensity after the Rays loaded the bases with no outs in the third inning.

"He threw too many pitches over the middle of the plate," Francona said. "The good side was that in that one inning he got a little aggravated and reached back and kind of dominated them."

Martinez escaped the jam by sandwiching strikeouts of Jose Cruz and Toby Hall on 94-m.p.h. heaters around a shallow fly to right by Jorge Cantu. Otherwise, the Rays dominated Martinez.

In the end, the Sox were left to ponder their fate with the division race nearly out reach.

"I don't think relief is the right word," Francona said. "I actually was having fun pushing [the Yankees], and I think our players were -- or are."

After all, the ember continued to flicker. 

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