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ON BASEBALL

Is it a bump in road, or end?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- He finished on his back, the loser of four straight starts in a season for the first time in a virtually bulletproof career.

Turns out the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who have vanquished him the last two times they have faced him, including last night's forgettable 9-4 effort, are Pedro Martinez's daddy, too.

"I wanted my game," Martinez said in what may have been his last regular-season start in a Red Sox uniform. "I really wanted to snap out of it."

Instead, the second-best pitcher on the team -- he made Terry Francona's announcement for him that he will follow Curt Schilling in the playoffs next week and pitch Game 2, a decision he claimed he had no quarrel with -- pitched last night like a man who could glimpse the twilight of his career.

"I kept telling my teammates, you never know, this might be my last outing," Martinez said when asked if he had thought this could be a swan song of sorts for the Sox. "People didn't want to make a big deal out of it, but as ugly as it was, that could be it."

Carl Crawford hit Martinez's first pitch of the night for a triple and scored on Orlando Cabrera's throwing error. The first batter in all five innings Martinez pitched reached base safely. In four of his five innings, the Devil Rays scored; in the other, they loaded the bases with no outs before Martinez escaped. He reached as high as 96 miles per hour on the stadium radar gun, but he also allowed the Devil Rays to steal three bases, including a snooze while Julio Lugo coasted into third base in the fourth. While Jason Varitek railed at plate umpire Larry Poncino for calling B.J. Upton safe at the plate on a second-inning sacrifice fly, Martinez remained disengaged, causing Varitek to flip him the ball in apparent disgust.

In his last three starts, Martinez gave up 27 hits, 6 walks, and 18 earned runs in 17 1/3 innings, which translates to an earned run average of 9.35. In his last four starts, dating to Sept. 14, Martinez retired the side in order just four times in 25 innings that he began. The respect remains; do not doubt that for a moment. But the fear factor in opposition dugouts is eroding as well. Let there be no mistake about that, either.

Martinez, free agent to be, showed enough brilliance this season -- winning 16 games, making 33 starts for the first time since 1998, pitching more than 200 innings for the first time since 2000, and striking out a staff-high 227 batters (second in the league only to Minnesota's Johan Santana) -- to make a case that the Sox have no choice but to re-sign him.

Martinez, free agent to be, showed enough slippage -- 26 home runs allowed, almost four times as many as the seven he allowed last season; 61 walks, most since 1998; 193 hits, most allowed in his career; a 3.90 ERA, which is 1.64 runs higher than his 2.26 career ERA in Boston entering this year -- as to raise questions whether the Sox would be better off seeking a younger, healthier, cheaper alternative, like Connecticut's Carl Pavano.

The debate that surely will ensue this winter, if the Sox don't re-sign Martinez right after the World Series, will be reminiscent of the tumult that accompanied Roger Clemens's walk year -- and we all remember how that worked out.

Martinez talked last night as if the decision was really his to make.

"I'm actually positive, I think I'm going to sign with Boston again," he said. "I hope they don't disrespect me or anything else when they are negotiating, because that would be my turning point. But I'm actually positive because I'm healthy, I'm pitching. There's no need to go anyplace else if they want to try and get something done. I'm going to give them a chance. The fact that I'm going to give them a chance is good enough to tell them we should get something done."

A few good starts in October might go further in persuading the Sox that they should dance to Pedro's piper. The fact is, even though he has acknowledged a willingness to take a paycut, he still wants to be paid like the best pitcher in the game. It would be nice if he started pitching like one again, proving that this has been just a temporary lull and all he's doing is sandbagging everybody, including the Yankees.

At least the Sox didn't offend his sensibilities when he went to Francona Tuesday night and asked when he would be given the ball next week. He had suggested last week that might be an issue.

"It was proper," he said yesterday. "Believe me, without a doubt [Schilling] deserves to be the No. 1 starter in that game. I just hope he performs just like he has. And you know what? You guys [media] need to respect that guy. That guy has been pretty good, very consistent.

"He's been better than Pedro Martinez and better than anybody on our team."

Martinez said he would do whatever he was asked -- "pitch tomorrow, pitch in relief, pitch the next day, pitch the next day, I'll pitch in all seven games."

It should be easier than that. Just pitch like Pedro, whatever that means in 2004, when it's his turn. Not like the impostor who showed up last night. 

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