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Some must pull out all stops in final push

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Yesterday's Red Sox-Orioles game marked the start of the final two weeks of spring training. The American League East rivals will meet for real April 4 at Camden Yards.

During the next fortnight, fringe players must overcome the lethargy that comes with long bus rides (yesterday's trip here was two hours from Fort Myers and today's trek to Vero Beach is 3 1/2 hours) and somehow turn manager Terry Francona's head or risk being left out of the Opening Day equation.

Certainly, this is not a team that has a lot of personnel decisions looming.

Injuries to Trot Nixon (who likely will miss the first month), Nomar Garciaparra (who the team insists will be ready Opening Day), and Byung Hyun Kim (who should be ready in mid-April) have created last-chance opportunities for several players.

"I'm sure [general manager] Theo Epstein and [assistant GM] Josh Byrnes are out there looking, but I don't feel that's my responsibility," Francona said. "I'm just not comfortable with that. My job is to get the most out of these players. If I'm saying we need this and we need that, I don't think that's very respectful of the players we have here."

Epstein was indeed working yesterday when he shipped Tony Womack to St. Louis for righthander Matt Duff, who was assigned to the Triple A staff. Womack had an out clause in his contract and he felt he would be able to play sooner than the Sox were projecting (about mid-April), so they accommodated the veteran's wishes.

The available jobs in Boston include two pitchers and two positional players.

Epstein feels the Sox are protected at second base with Pokey Reese, Mark Bellhorn, and Terry Shumpert (who suffered a strained left hamstring as he scored the winning run in the top of the ninth in yesterday's 4-2 victory), but the GM is thinking of contingency plans with Nixon, Garciaparra, and Kim ailing.

"We're very aggressive, so we're always looking over the waiver wire," Epstein said.

That aggressiveness allowed Epstein to land lefthander Frank Brooks, a Rule 5 player, who will get a lot of action the rest of the way. Brooks picked up the win yesterday, allowing one hit in one inning, including retiring Rafael Palmeiro. The Sox acquired Brooks from Oakland after the Athletics had acquired him via trade from the Mets, who had plucked him from the Pirates in December's Rule 5 draft. The New Jersey native will compete with veterans Ramiro Mendoza and lefthander Bobby Jones for the 11th and 12th spots on the staff.

"I'll do anything, starter, reliever, carry around the bubble gum or the bucket. You name it, I'll do it," said Brooks after his outing. Asked about the frustration of having to be returned to the Pirates if he doesn't make the team, he said, "It'll suck, but what are you going to do?"

The Red Sox would love to have a situational lefty, but if they don't, they want to make sure they have the best staff possible.

In a perfect scenario, Mendoza makes it because the Sox are paying him a lot of money ($3.6 million), but it's a question of when and if he'll be ready. Mendoza's been sidelined with an abdominal strain and he's battling a stiff neck, but he's due to throw an inning against the Dodgers today.

"His health and how he pitches will dictate where he's at," Francona said. "Things would have to go pretty much on schedule for him to break with us. We'd have to stretch him out to a couple of innings and then go back-to-back, so there is a time issue. But his health is more important than us putting him on an official deadline." Francona isn't concerned about Mendoza's confidence. The manager says, "We owe it to him, we owe it to ourselves and our organization to give him a chance to go back to what he [was] brought in to do."

Jones, 32, a journeyman, has not allowed a run in 6 1/3 innings over five games, retiring 21 of 23 batters. He's allowed two hits, no walks, and has struck out seven. He was impressive Friday against Pittsburgh, striking out a pair over 1 2/3 innings to earn the save.

"His last outing was tremendous," said Francona. "I don't know what his ERA is in spring training, but he's made an impression, that's for sure. We thought he would, though . . . I wasn't going to be surprised if he came in and showed himself pretty good. When he was younger, his stuff was electric, but he didn't have command consistently enough to have success. His fastball might not be as good as it was four or five years ago, but he has a better idea of what he's doing now."

With Bellhorn a sure thing and Brian Daubach close to being a sure thing, the final roster spot could come down to Dave McCarty, Shumpert, or possibly infielder Cesar Crespo. McCarty, who started in right field, continued to make a case for himself by crunching a homer to left-center against lefthander Erik Bedard yesterday. McCarty, who has scaled back his pitching experiment, will throw some innings in minor league games this week. Francona wasn't biting on whether McCarty's versatility tips the scales in his favor, but it can't hurt.

Shumpert, who has appeared in 13 games and has played a lot lately, felt his injury was more of a cramp than a tear. But the Sox will closely monitor the injury, which couldn't come at a worse time for the veteran utilityman.

Francona said he's looking for a backup in the outfield because "Gabe [Kapler] is so good defensively that he's going to have to get a lot of playing time. I shouldn't say `have to' but, especially in Boston, I think his defense is pretty important. But we have the ability to put [Kevin] Millar out there. David [Ortiz] can DH and play first. Millar can play first or right. We have a lot of different ways to go about it."

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