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ON BASEBALL

Options available if receiver is dropped

CLEVELAND -- With just one hit in 39 at-bats in 2004, he had the lowest batting average (.026) of any position player in the major leagues with at least 40 plate appearances. Last season, he went hitless in a dozen big league at-bats.

But there's a reason the Red Sox have signed minor league free agent Corky Miller, who has caught the last two games for Triple A Pawtucket, where he was assigned after the Sox picked him up following his release by Seattle April 16. The 30-year-old Miller is of interest to the Sox not because of his .193 career batting average in 88 big league games, mostly with the Reds, nor because he was hit by a pitch an astonishing 115 times in his first four professional seasons.

He is in the Sox' system because he can catch a knuckleball, which he demonstrated by his ability to handle Jared Fernandez, the former Sox farmhand who threw to Miller when he was in the Reds' system, both at the minor and major league levels. Could he be in a Sox uniform by Monday, when Tim Wakefield is scheduled to make his next start, at home against the Yankees?

The Sox have made no decisions, but they may likely be leaning toward a change after catcher Josh Bard was charged with four passed balls in last night's 7-1 loss to the Indians. Bard, who has caught Wakefield in all five of his starts, has now been charged with 10 passed balls, which puts him on a pace to commit an ungodly 60 if Wakefield makes 30 starts. Last season, Doug Mirabelli, who made a nice living with the Sox by catching Wakefield, had six.

If not Miller, the Sox could turn to Ken Huckaby, who prepared for the assignment by showing up at Wakefield's home in Melbourne, Fla., this winter to work with the knuckleballer. Huckaby, who was hindered by a knee injury in spring training and lost out to Bard for the job of Jason Varitek's backup, opened the season in Pawtucket and last week went on the seven-day disabled list when he was struck in the throwing hand by a bat, but he's eligible to come off the DL tomorrow.

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein was in Pawtucket last night, ostensibly to watch top lefthanded prospect Jon Lester, but he also had the chance to check out Miller, a former two-time Southern League All-Star and International League catcher of the year who is listed at 6 feet 1 inch and 246 pounds, and does not appear to be shorted at that number.

Bard, who had no previous experience catching a knuckler in the Cleveland system, is enduring one of the most demanding crash courses in the game, and so far he's failing, which places him in the company of numerous catchers who otherwise were quite proficient behind the plate. In 1987, when knuckleballer Charlie Hough was the headliner on the Texas staff, the Rangers committed a record 73 passed balls. Thirty-five were charged to Geno Petralli, who shares the record for most passed balls in a game (six).

Varitek, back in the day when he was still called upon to catch Wakefield (and Pedro Martínez and Bret Saberhagen), was charged with 25 passed balls in 1999. In Wakefield's first season with the Sox, 1995, catcher Mike Macfarlane, known as a good receiver, was charged with 26.

In the fourth inning last night, Victor Martinez walked, took second on a passed ball, advanced to third on a single, and scored on a passed ball. In the sixth, Martinez singled, advanced to second on a passed ball, and scored on Aaron Boone's double.

Wakefield, true to his code of never assigning blame to a teammate, is adamant in his defense of Bard, who is using a catcher's mitt that once belonged to Mirabelli, who is now languishing on the Padres' bench in San Diego behind Mike Piazza.

''Josh is doing a great job," Wakefield said. ''I'm very comfortable with him back there. I'm hoping that everybody can get off of him for a while."

Manager Terry Francona was more measured in his comments.

''I'm watching the same game you are," he said. ''It's not a lot of fun to sit there sometimes. I don't think it's fun for Bard. He's working hard. The best way I know to get better is to work. And I know he won't shortchange us there.

''I remember talking to Dougie, when he first started, and he said he got beat up pretty good.

''It's hard to hit, it's hard to catch. We're living through that right now. When it happens at inopportune times, it makes it harder to win games. That's just the way it is. I don't want this kid to beat himself up. He's already doing that. He's very conscientious. He's actually a great receiver."

After the Baltimore Orioles made 49 passed balls in 1959 while trying to catch Hoyt Wilhelm, the Hall of Fame knuckler, manager Paul Richards the next season unearthed ''Big Bertha," a catcher's mitt with a 46-inch circumference. Clint Courtney, the first time he used it, did not commit a passed ball. The rule was subsequently changed, the biggest glove allowed now 38 inches. But the way things are going, Bard could take a clothes basket behind the plate and still have problems.

''I know [Wakefield] believes in me," he said, ''and I believe in me."

That may not be enough.

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