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Giant outing awaits Tavarez

He's supposed to be the fifth pitcher in the rotation, but Julian Tavarez, who takes the hill for the Red Sox tonight as they open a three-game series with the Giants, has been matched up against his share of No. 1s.

Tavarez has drawn Kevin Millwood of the Rangers, Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays (twice), Chien-Ming Wang of the Yankees, Johan Santana of the Twins, and Dan Haren of the Athletics. Tonight, he faces $126 million lefthander Barry Zito.

But the Dominican righthander isn't too concerned.

"I don't have to be at home plate swinging against Zito -- they will," Tavarez said, gesturing to his teammates.

"I don't care if Zito is pitching or Randy Johnson."

Tavarez hasn't put his name in the class of some of the pitchers he's faced, but he has proven his ability to eat up innings this season, keeping the No. 5 starting slot warm for the anticipated return of Jon Lester.

"He's done a good job," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "He's given us a chance to win a lot of ballgames, and I think it was something that wasn't really expected out of him in spring training. So he's been a good boost for us."

Tavarez has been more of a boost in recent weeks, posting a 3.90 ERA and limiting opponents to a .241 batting average in his last five starts.

And those numbers come despite a blister on the middle finger of Tavarez's pitching hand. His home remedy: popping it and making it dry by adding a mixture of Red Bull and ground-up aspirin.

With consecutive losses by Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett, the Yankees closing the division lead to 7 1/2 games, and the Boston bats conspicuously quiet, Tavarez's start takes on special significance, beyond kicking off Barry Bonds Mania Weekend.

Tavarez was in high demand for questions about Bonds from the media because he played in San Francisco for three years.

Yet even with Bonds in town, the Sox in a swoon, and the pesky blister, Tavarez was calm the night before his start.

"I ain't changing what I'm going to do," said Tavarez, who is 3-4 with a 5.25 ERA in 11 starts. "I'm just trying to get guys out, quick outs. That's it."

The key to quick outs is Tavarez's sinker.

"If Tavarez has that great sinker working down, he's going to be dominant," said reliever Joel Piñeiro. "That's all he needs. He needs to trust his stuff. But that sinker is definitely working. He should be fine going out there."

Piñeiro also credited Tavarez's pregame calm to his success this season.

"You don't even know what is going through that guy's mind," Piñeiro said. "I'll bet that's the last thing that he's thinking, that he's facing Zito."

Zito was the ace in Oakland before signing a seven-year, $126 million deal in the offseason. In his last four starts, Zito is 3-1 with a blistering 1.50 ERA, after a rough start to the season.

But the Sox have handled the expensive ace: His record is 5-5 with a 4.78 ERA against Boston.

Stats like that are a welcome sign for a struggling offense that was anemic once again last night. But Tavarez was not concerned about run support, or anything else for that matter.

"Today we don't score that many runs, but we know we can do it," he said. "It's no panic -- at least I'm not. Every time I look at the [standings on the] scoreboard, we're ahead and not in second place. We just have to keep doing the same thing we do. Keep playing and the ball will find a hole. Our guys are always relaxing, very relaxed about it."

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