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Recuperated ace set for Mariner matinee

Three days after Pedro Martinez lay in a hospital bed receiving intravenous fluids for a severe throat inflammation, the Red Sox ace last night was cleared to return to the mound today for the finale of a four-game series against the Mariners, one of Boston's chief rivals for a playoff berth.

Rather than wait until Martinez's regularly scheduled turn tomorrow, manager Grady Little scheduled the American League's ERA leader (2.32) to return to action a day earlier than expected. Little briefly conferred with Martinez before making the decision.

"I'll look at him real closely in the face and see what he looks like and watch how he's acting around here," Little said when asked how he would determine if Martinez was ready to pitch today.

The outing will be Martinez's first since Aug. 16, when he three-hit the Mariners over seven innings in a 5-1 victory in Seattle. While the Sox could have waited until tomorrow to start Martinez in the opener of a two-game series against the Blue Jays, Little said they wanted to get the ace back on the mound as quickly as possible.

The fact that Martinez is 11-0 with an 0.96 ERA in his career against Seattle certainly did not dissuade the team from approving the start.

"It's great to be in the heart of a pennant race this deep into August," principal owner John W. Henry said, "and I very much like our chances, especially with Pedro getting healthy."

Little said he did not believe Martinez would benefit from the extra rest, even though he was sick.

"The way he's pitching, I don't know if anything can help him anymore," Little said. "His arm's feeling good. He's in good shape outside of this sickness. He's been doing a heckuva job for us."

Martinez (9-3), who will face righthander Gil Meche (13-9, 3.92), will flip-flop with Tim Wakefield, who will start tomorrow against the Jays. John Burkett will pitch the finale of the Toronto series, leaving Jeff Suppan, Derek Lowe, and Martinez to face the Yankees this weekend at Fenway.

Managerial material In an poll of 97 players, including representatives of each team in the majors, Jason Varitek finished second to Kansas City catcher Tom Prince among American League players who "would make a great manager some day." Players were asked not to vote for their teammates.

Varitek is too concerned about chasing a playoff berth to worry about life after his playing days. But his teammates consider him manager material.

"He's a very knowledgeable guy," Burkett said. "He takes pride in preparing. He gets along with everybody. He can be intense at times, which can be good, too. I think all those qualities are good for a manager to have."

Anger management All the early-season angst over Nomar Garciaparra's defense should by now have dissolved. He has committed only two errors since the All-Star break and only one in 31 games since July 20 . . . Restoring Todd Walker and Bill Mueller to their regular spots in the lineup has worked wonders. In four games since Walker began hitting second again and Mueller eighth again, Walker was batting .313 (5 for 16) with a double and three RBIs and Mueller was hitting .538 (7 for 13) with two doubles, a home run, and three RBIs. Both had a hit and a run scored last night . . . Little rested Byung Hyun Kim last night after he pitched four straight days and struggled in several of them. He would have tapped former Reds closer Scott Williamson to close if needed . . . After their 10-inning, 7-6 walkoff victory over the Mariners Saturday, the Sox lead the league with 21 one-run wins and nine extra-inning victories . . . Over the last six games, Boston's opposing starters have combined for a 10.58 ERA, allowing 30 runs (29 earned) on 44 hits and 25 walks in 24 2/3 innings . . . The Sox are 38-8 when Kevin Millar drives in a run, as he did last night, and 44-18 when Johnny Damon scores a run, as he also did. The Sox have won 18 straight games in which Millar has knocked in a run . . . When Lowe struck out Dan Wilson in the third inning, he snapped Wilson's streak of 34 straight plate appearances without a strikeout, the longest active streak in the majors . . . Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, and Nash tossed a ceremonial first pitch.

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