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New season old news for some

Most of the Red Sox are not strangers to the postseason. Many have gone to the playoffs with the Sox. Others, such as Mike Timlin and Byung Hyun Kim, are hoping to add to the World Series rings they won with other teams, Timlin with the Blue Jays and Kim with the Diamondbacks (Ramiro Mendoza won championships with the Yankees but is unlikely to appear in the postseason). Still others were savoring their first shot at glory.

Notable among the Sox looking forward to their first trip to the postseason were Kevin Millar, Todd Walker, Damian Jackson, Gabe Kapler, and a number of relievers, including Scott Williamson, Scott Sauerbeck, and Todd Jones.

"I'm excited about it, obviously," Walker said. "Not only are we excited about being in the playoffs, we feel like we have a chance to win the whole thing. That's what most people are excited about."

Walker, at least, had the experience of winning the College World Series with LSU in 1993. Others had not won championships since high school or Little League.

"I knew I had an opportunity to be part of something like this," said Kapler, who chose the Sox over other midseason suitors after the Rockies released him. "It's a feeling I can't describe. It's just awesome to be here and be part of all this."

Timlin and Mendoza have appeared most often in the postseason, with Timlin making six trips with the Jays, Mariners, and Cardinals, and Mendoza going six times with the Yankees. Manny Ramirez (Indians) and John Burkett (Rangers, Braves) have gone five times. Tim Wakefield has appeared four times in the postseason, once with the Pirates and three times with the Sox.

Nixon hoping for best

Right fielder Trot Nixon admitted he was uncertain whether he'll be able to play in the first round against Oakland after aggravating his strained calf muscle Tuesday. "The trainers are doing whatever they need to do," said Nixon, who has not played the last two nights and is expected to sit out against the Devil Rays this weekend. "Hopefully, I'll be here next Wednesday. There are always other means if they allow me to do it, because it's all about getting on the field."

Manager Grady Little said Nixon, who practiced before last night's game, had improved enough that he was available to pinch hit. General manager Theo Epstein also noted the improvement, though the Sox are not expected to rush Nixon back. "He feels better today," Epstein said. "We're going to be patient with him."

Timely breather

As much as the Sox wanted to clinch last night for the hometown fans, Little also was concerned about readying the team for the postseason, particularly Pedro Martinez. The Sox ace is scheduled to start tonight in the opener of a three-game series against the Devil Rays. It will be his final outing before he starts Game 1 against the A's Wednesday in Oakland.

"It gives us chance to monitor Pedro [tonight]," Little said. "That's the No. 1 thing I was thinking about, getting it done before we got to Tampa Bay. I didn't want Pedro to have to go out there and go nine innings. This does nothing but help us."

Martinez will likely tune up for the A's by going only several innings against the Rays. Most of the Sox regulars could benefit from some rest, though others, such as Johnny Damon, feel they need to continue playing to stay sharp or refine their timing.

Epstein and Little have held serious discussions about the postseason roster, but Epstein said they have to yet finalize any decisions, though Martinez is a lock for Game 1. Notable among the issues to be addressed were whether the Sox will carry 10 or 11 pitchers and whether Wakefield or Derek Lowe will start Game 2 in Oakland. The Sox are not required to file their 25-man roster for the Division Series until Wednesday at 10 a.m.

Crash course

The Sox have asked Lou Merloni to practice catching in case of emergency, particularly if they go far enough to face National League teams with only two catchers, Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli. Merloni said he has not appeared as a catcher since he played Babe Ruth ball in Framingham. He worked out with Bill Haselman and bench coach Jerry Narron (a former big-league catcher) before the game . . . After Nomar Garciaparra hit .125 (3 for 24) in a brief stint batting second, Little moved him back to his customary third slot and he responded by smacking a three-run homer in the second inning after grounding out to knock in a run in the first. Bill Mueller, who entered the game in a 1-for-14 funk since he returned from back spasms, batted second, going 3 for 5 with a pair of doubles and three RBIs to improve his league-leading average to .327. Ramirez went 2 for 4 and was at .324 . . . The Sox finished 53-28 at home partly because all nine regulars hit .288 or better, led by Garciaparra (.359). Garciaparra and Ramirez led the team with 18 homers each in the Fens, just ahead of Ortiz (17). Lowe was the winningest pitcher at home, going 11-2 with a 3.29 ERA.

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