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Mounds of evidence for this great debate

Let the debate begin: Bronson Arroyo or Byung Hyun Kim?

It's only natural fans will stake out spots on either side of the issue after Arroyo put the Red Sox in position to beat the Yankees yesterday by surrendering only two runs on four hits and a pair of walks over six-plus innings in the 12-inning, 3-2 victory at Yankee Stadium.

Arroyo allowed only one hit (a solo homer by Alex Rodriguez) through six innings before the Yankees opened the seventh with three straight singles to score their second run and chase him. He held the Yankees hitless through 3 1/3 innings, the longest a Sox starter has not allowed a hit to an opponent this season.

"He was so good and so efficient," manager Terry Francona said. "It was one of those games where he had to be or we wouldn't have had a chance to win."

Arroyo fared even better than he did five days earlier when he spotted the Yankees four runs over 6 1/3 innings in an eventual 5-4 Boston victory. He went 10 days between that start and his previous one April 9.

"I just felt better today having the four days' rest and not having a big gap in between," he said. "I was sharper with my fastball early and had a better feel for the lineup from playing them once before."

Yet while Arroyo was mowing down Yankees, Kim was ripping through Toronto's Triple A affiliate from Syracuse in a four-inning rehab start in Pawtucket. Kim, who signed a two-year, $10-million contract over the winter to serve as a Sox starter, surrendered only two hits, walked one, and hit a batter as he held Syracuse scoreless.

Kim, who was sidelined in spring training with a strained right shoulder, threw 60 pitches, which was expected to mark the threshold he needed to cross before joining the rotation. The Sox would need him to go at least five innings if he slips into Arroyo's slot in the rotation Friday in Texas. In three rehab outings (one for Single A Sarasota and two for Pawtucket), Kim has allowed just one unearned run over 8 1/3 innings. Francona said the Sox will meet on the off day tomorrow to decide how to proceed with Kim. If they choose to activate the Korean star Friday, Arroyo would become the long man in the bullpen.

Considering the Sox have two solid options to serve as their fifth starter, they are better stocked than the Yankees, whose shortage of starters is so dire that Javier Vazquez is scheduled to face Pedro Martinez today on three days of rest.

Chipping in

Mark Bellhorn hardly wowed the manager in spring training. "Some guys don't rise to the occasion in the second week of March," Francona said. "I think he was one of them."

But Bellhorn, who was projected to start the season on the bench backing up Pokey Reese at second base and Bill Mueller at third, has sure impressed the manager since Opening Day. In his latest contribution, Bellhorn drove in the winning run with a sac fly in the 12th.

"Every day he shows up and he plays the game right," Francona said. "He works the count out and does things that are so important. He finds a way to win that maybe doesn't show up in the box score. We know that and appreciate it."

Bellhorn is batting only .196 but has a .414 on-base percentage. "Sometimes you can look at batting average and say he's been scuffling, but he's been on base almost half the time," Francona said. "Defensively, he's been everywhere he's supposed to be."

Ditto for Reese.

"Moving Pokey to short, he's been so much better than you could actually ask somebody to be," the manager said. "It's hard to find somebody better than him defensively. Offensively, Pokey's not Nomar [Garciaparra]. Nobody's going to be, but he's saved us a lot of runs in the field and played with energy."

Mueller milestone

Mueller's double off Yankees starter Kevin Brown in the fifth inning was the 200th of his career . . . Mueller has reached base safely in 13 straight games by hit or a walk . . . When David Ortiz doubled leading off the third inning, it marked his sixth straight game with an extra-base hit (five doubles and a homer) . . . Alan Embree held the Yankees scoreless in the eighth and ninth innings, marking the first time he pitched two innings of relief since June 23. He has gone two innings three times and three innings once since he joined the Sox in 2002 . . . When Brown fired a fastball high and inside on an 0-1 count to Manny Ramirez in the first inning, Ramirez briefly put his hands on his hips and stared at Brown. But no words were exchanged. Yankee pitchers grazed three Sox batters (Gabe Kapler, Ellis Burks, and Kevin Millar) with pitches, and Keith Foulke hit Gary Sheffield in the back with a pitch . . . Francona has maintained regular contact with Garciaparra and Trot Nixon while they continue their arduous rehab programs, Garciaparra in the Boston area and Nixon in Fort Myers, Fla. He needs to monitor their progress but also wants to help them feel part of the cause. "I want them to know that we miss them," Francona said. "At the same time, there's a big balance there. The team we have right now is the team we have, so we're supposed to go out and win. You acknowledge that we're missing good players, but you don't allow it as an excuse to lose." Garciaparra (right Achilles' tendinitis) bounced back well from his first light running Friday and is expected to run again today, but it seems all but certain he will not be ready to go by the end of the month. When the All-Star shortstop returned to Boston from spring training April 1, the Sox estimated he would need three weeks of rest and rehab before he might be cleared for baseball activities. The three-week mark passed Thursday. Francona said Nixon (mildly herniated disk) is closer than Garciaparra to returning. The next step for Nixon, who has faced minor league pitchers in practice, is to play in a simulated game. Barring a setback, he then could be cleared for a minor league rehab assignment.

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