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Batting race a wild one

Should the Red Sox clinch the wild card, one of the final dramas of the regular season could shape up as the race between Manny Ramirez and Bill Mueller for the American League batting crown.

With Mueller (.324) holding a slim lead over Ramirez and the White Sox' Magglio Ordonez (both .323), the Sox have a chance to finish the season with the league's top two hitters for only the third time in franchise history.

On both previous occasions, Ted Williams captured the title, batting .328 in 1958 to edge Pete Runnels (.322) and hitting .356 in 1942 to outdistance Johnny Pesky (.331). Pesky is siding with the infielder over the superstar left fielder, despite Pesky's affinity for Ramirez, who enveloped him in a bear hug before the game. Ramirez hit .349 last year to win his first batting title.

"I like both of them very much," Pesky said, "but I'm kind of pulling for the third baseman."

Beyond Mueller's underdog status, Pesky was struck by his unselfishness Tuesday night in purposely grounding out to second base to advance Kevin Millar from second to third with none out and the Sox trailing the Orioles, 3-2, in the sixth inning.

"He's not a selfish kid," Pesky said. "He gave himself up and sacrificed a chance to go ahead in the batting race. Deep down in his heart, he has a winning attitude. He's understands the game and what has to be done."

Indeed, some of Mueller's teammates consider him the club's MVP, though David Ortiz also has considerable support.

"It seems like every time you need a big hit or a big at-bat, he's the one who gives it to you," Johnny Damon said of Mueller. As for the four remaining games, Ramirez is batting .270 against the Orioles this season, .364 against Tampa Bay. Mueller has raked Baltimore pitchers for a .383 average, but against the Devil Rays he is hitting .311.Mueller has struggled (1 for 14) since missing two games because of back spasms. Mueller was 1 for 4 last night with two strikeouts. Ramirez was 0 for 4.

Nixon forced out

As the Sox feared, Trot Nixon suffered a minor setback in his recovery from a slight tear in his left calf. He awakened with some soreness and tested his leg before the game, only for the Sox to decide during batting practice to scratch him from the lineup. The Sox had tried to wait until Nixon's injury was fully healed, wary of him aggravating it, apparently to no avail.

The relapse occurred just before the Sox hoped to clinch a wild-card berth and start resting some players.

"It's going to be day to day," manager Grady Little said. "We don't want to take any chances, so we'll give him a day or two to get it going again."

While Gabe Kapler, who replaced Nixon, has filled in admirably in 10 starts since the right fielder was injured Sept. 9, the Sox prefer to have Nixon in the lineup. They are 75-44 when Nixon starts in right field, 18-21 when he's out.

The injury also was a personal setback for Nixon, who naturally would like to finish with 30 homers (he has a career-high 28) and top his career best of 94 RBIs (he has 87).

Stealing spotlight

When Damon stole second base in the first inning, he became only the third Sox player with 30 or more steals in consecutive seasons. He swiped 31 last year. Tris Speaker stole 30 or more for the Sox in 1909 and '10 and from 1912 to 1914, and Harry Hooper pulled it off in 1910 and '11. Damon's 30-steal season is the 18th in club history. He also topped 30 steals for the Royals in 1999 (36) and 2000 (a league-leading 46) . . . Ortiz bolstered his MVP candidacy with a pair of homers (Nos. 30 and 31). He also reached the 100-RBI plateau in 441 at-bats. In comparison, Ramirez has knocked in 102 runs in 561 at-bats and Nomar Garciaparra has driven in 100 runs in 648 at-bats. Ortiz leads the Sox with 24 go-ahead RBIs and ranks second in the AL in winning RBIs with 16, trailing only Oakland's Eric Chavez and New York's Hideki Matsui, who each have 17 . . . Moving Garciaparra to the second spot in the order has yet to pay dividends for the shortstop, who is batting .125 (3 for 24) in the 2-hole, dropping his September average to .167 (14 for 84). Walker has responded well this month to batting third, batting .320 (8 for 25). Walker is batting .359 (23 for 64) in September . . . The Sox broke the major league record for total bases in a season with 2,750, eclipsing the 2001 Rockies (2,748) . . . The seven runs John Burkett surrendered in the first marked the fourth time this season the Orioles have scored seven in an inning against the Sox, who have allowed seven seven-run innings . . . Scott Williamson pitched a scoreless ninth inning with one strikeout . . . Millar on the October classic: "My dream-team World Series as a fan and a player would be the Cubs against the Red Sox. You've got to have appreciation for what those cities have gone through and how long they've waited.". . . Longtime baseball writer Larry Whiteside, who covered the 1975 and '86 World Series during a career that has spanned more than 30 years with the Globe, tossed a ceremonial first pitch.

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