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Nonchalant Mueller wins AL batting title

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Rarely has a player won a batting title and marked the achievement with more indifference than Bill Mueller did yesterday after he finished at .326 to capture the American League crown. But don't mistake Mueller's reaction for a lack of passion. What drives him -- in all sincerity -- is helping the team win rather than accumulating personal trophies.

"It's a pretty amazing thing," he said as a bottle of champagne chilled in a bucket of ice, a gift from Tim Wakefield and the rest of his teammates. "With all due respect to everbody, it's nice, but we have a lot of baseball to be played. It's good it's over and done with. We've got to go out there and start thinking about Oakland."

Seriously. That's about as emotional as Mueller got after he edged Manny Ramirez (.325) and Derek Jeter (.324) for his first batting title. He became the first Sox switch hitter to win a crown and the first switch hitter in the majors since New York's Bernie Williams in 1998.

"Personal things don't motivate me as much," Mueller said, "as getting into the playoffs and possibly winning the World Series."

Of the three top contenders, only Jeter started yesterday, going 0 for 3 to drop from .326 to .324. The Sox monitored Jeter's progress, waiting until the Yankees shortstop was replaced by Enrique Wilson before Mueller was sent in as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning. Mueller, who initially was expected to start the game, bounced into a fielder's choice and dropped a point from .327.

Manager Grady Little said resting Mueller for the Division Series was more important than competing for the batting title.

"Everything we're doing around here has been about preparing for the postseason," Little said. "We rested our regulars throughout the weekend, and today was no different."

Ramirez stopped by the park but then left for his home in Fort Lauderdale. He was given permission to rejoin the club in Oakland, though it was uncertain whether he would report in time for tomorrow's official workout. (Nomar Garciaparra was permitted to depart after Saturday's game to watch fiancee Mia Hamm play in a World Cup qualifying soccer match yesterday. However, Hamm didn't play as the US team rested her. Garciaparra was scheduled to rejoin the team before the workout.)

Mueller joined Ramirez and Garciaparra as winners of four of the last five batting titles. Ramirez won last year, while Garciaparra won in 1999 and 2000. Since 1979, the Sox have won 11 batting titles, the most in baseball. They also finished with the league's top two hitters for the third time in franchise history. Ted Williams (.356) and Johnny Pesky (.331) finished 1-2 in 1942, and Williams (.328) and Pete Runnels (.322) finished first and second in 1958.

Mueller won the title with the lowest average in the majors since Atlanta's Terry Pendleton (.319) in 1991 and the lowest in the AL since Minnesota's Rod Carew (.318) in 1972.

It's in the details Explaining more fully why he will start Wakefield Thursday in Game 2 of the Division Series in Oakland and Derek Lowe Saturday in Game 3 at Fenway, Little said the move hinged mainly on the expansiveness of the stadium in Oakland and Lowe's 11-2 record at Fenway. The foul territory at Network Associates Coliseum is among the widest in baseball.

Little said one statistic particularly captured his attention: Wakefield has induced 75 popups for infield outs (fair or foul) this season while Lowe has induced only 12. Lowe leads the league in the percentage of pitches that are hit on the ground, nearly 80 percent.

Using Wakefield in Game 2 also could make him available out of the bullpen in Games 4 or 5, if necessary, an option Little would relish. The manager said he fought the urge to use Wakefield out of the pen this year when his relief corps struggled badly.

For Wakefield, who was deeply hurt when he was left off the 1999 AL Championship Series roster, receiving the call to start Game 2 was a welcome development.

"When the manager has that much confidence in you, it gives you a lot of confidence in getting the job done," the knuckleballer said after pitching two scoreless innings yesterday in his final tuneup before the playoffs.

Lowe, sucking a lollipop after yesterday's game, was asked his reaction to starting Game 3. He politely declined to comment, saying the outing was nearly a week away.

Surprise in store? Just as Wakefield was left off the '99 ALCS roster, there could be a surprise when the rosters are announced Wednesday. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you there won't be some [decisions] that shock you when we set this roster," Little said. "But it will be because we think that's how we have our best shot to win." If the Sox go with 11 pitchers, which is likely, though unofficial, it's quite possible Bronson Arroyo could edge out Brandon Lyon and Todd Jones for the final spot. And the pool of 14 position players could include Adrian Brown rather than David McCarty or Andy Abad. Arroyo was the last pitcher to join the team and Brown the last position player, but each has strengths that could help. Arroyo pitched three scoreless innings yesterday to improve his ERA to 2.08. He has held batters to a .164 average. Brown has speed and an excellent outfield glove . . . The Sox plan to wait until the last minute to decide whether to place Trot Nixon on the roster. Even if he can serve only as a pinch hitter, Nixon could make the roster. He plans to work out at the team hotel in San Francisco today since the ballpark will not be available . . . While Little's coaching staff is in limbo until his contract situation is resolved, bench coach Jerry Narron could emerge as a candidate for the looming managerial vacancies, particularly in Baltimore. If Little stays, he would like to retain Tony Cloninger as pitching coach. Under that scenario, Dave Wallace would move into a front-office position, perhaps overseeing pitching throughout the organization . . . The Sox have granted the Reds permission to interview vice president of baseball operations Mike Port for their vacant GM job . . . Doug Mirabelli will catch Wakefield in Game 2.

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