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Martinez, Sox make Mariners look sick in rout

Stay to the right, Randy Johnson. Pedro Martinez just zipped by you in the passing lane.

Sure, the Red Sox ace was low on fuel yesterday as he emerged from the pit of a debilitating throat ailment to pitch for the first time in nine days. But what he lacked in octane, Martinez made up for with his trademark grit and guile as he ran over the limping Mariners like so much roadkill, leading the Sox to an 8-1 victory before a sun-kissed 33,007 at Fenway Park.

Martinez improved to a remarkable 12-0 against the Big Unit's former team, eclipsing Johnson among active pitchers for the most wins against a single opponent without a loss (Johnson is 11-0 against the Cubs). Martinez also helped the Sox sweep a four-game series from the Mariners for the first time since 1991 as Grady Little's crew won a fifth straight game for the first time since July 23. Not bad, considering Martinez lay in a hospital four days earlier receiving intravenous fluids for dehydration while running a 101-degree fever.

"He might have taken the ball earlier than he needed to," catcher Jason Varitek said, "but he took it."

Which served in part as Martinez's response to naysayers who doubted the severity of his illness or questioned his commitment to the team. Despite his weakness, Martinez fired 87 pitches over six innings, scattering six hits and two walks to allow the Seattle run, as he improved to 10-3 and maintained the league lead in ERA (2.29). He fanned four to regain the league lead in strikeouts (166).

"He gave us everything he had out there," Little said, "and we are proud for him."

They were proud, too, for David Ortiz, who paced the offense as he matched a career high by knocking in four runs on a two-run homer and two-run single off Seattle starter Gil Meche. When he was done slugging, Ortiz climbed the steps of the dugout to gather Martinez in his arms for a congratulatory hug after his Dominican countryman completed his outing to warm applause.

"He's the guy we need protecting Manny [Ramirez] right now," Johnny Damon said of Ortiz. "They can't pitch around Manny like they could before. It's a good thing we have him in the lineup every single day."

It's an even better thing that the Sox have clicked on all cylinders since they spanked the A's, 14-5, last Thursday to begin their five-game streak. During the stretch, they have hit .333 while outscoring the opposition, 41-17, and playing errorless defense.

"We tend to keep pretty positive despite all the distractions and everything else outside of the clubhouse," Todd Walker said. "It was a tough battle after we lost two in a row [to Oakland] and we were getting attacked from the outside. We just had to stay positive, and we did that. When we won that last game against Oakland, that was a big win because it gave us momentum coming into this series. We felt good about ourselves and we played great these last four games."

They played well enough to head out to dinner last night knowing they could go to bed with at least a share of the wild-card lead with Seattle and Oakland and no worse than a five-game deficit in the AL East.

"It's tough to sweep a team in a three-game series, let alone a four-game series," Kevin Millar said. "Our lineup went out there and put pressure on them all day. It's a great series to win."

The victory allowed the Sox to finish their 14-game stretch against the A's and Mariners at 8-6, a mark they welcomed after going 3-4 on the West Coast.

"It can't be any better," Little said of the sweep. "We played a good series. We played good baseball. We executed all the way around."

They moved up runners when they needed to, knocked them in when they had the chance, and exploited nearly every uncharacteristic mistake the Mariners made. Ortiz got help from Bill Mueller, who doubled home a pair of runs, while Nomar Garciaparra (3 for 4 with a walk) and Walker (2 for 5) each knocked in another.

By the time Ortiz followed Garciaparra's run-scoring single in the third with his blast into the right-field stands, Martinez had more runs than he needed. The Sox ace struggled to throw his fastball more than 90 miles an hour but still managed to keep the Mariners off-balance with an array of curves, changes, and cut fastballs.

"He obviously wasn't real strong or as sharp as he could be," Varitek said. "But he's got a lot of different pitches to get you out with even on days when he's not that strong."

The Mariners threatened against Martinez in the fourth when Randy Winn singled into the right-field corner with none out and runners at first and second. But when John Olerud on second misread the play, he had to stop at third and Winn had no place to go when he tried to stretch the single into a double and was tagged out.

Despite the blunder, the M's had runners at second and third with one out. But Martinez promptly fanned Carlos Guillen and ultimately snuffed the threat by getting Ben Davis to fly to right.

Even when the Mariners mustered their lone run in the sixth inning, they were too far down to recover. The Sox were rolling.

"Like we said going into this, we had to play very good baseball and hope they didn't get going," Damon said. "And that's what happened."

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