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Hotheads won't take steam out of summer

So, Pedro Martinez made it official, echoing fellow free agent-to-be Derek Lowe and saying he's through negotiating with the Red Sox until after the season and is determined to test the market. Don't let it ruin your summer.

They all could be gone after this season, the Big Four of Martinez, Lowe, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jason Varitek (the only one of them yet to voice any public displeasure over negotiations, though his handlers will tell you the Red Sox have made a "rock-bottom" offer).

If that happens, it will be a business decision, one made by all parties involved. Despite John W. Henry's affection for ballplayers, he obviously will not let sentiment cloud his judgment about the value of any of the Big Four to the future of his club. And even if Henry were inclined to do so, Larry Lucchino is around to keep him from wavering.

And the players will decide their futures on the basis of what their view of fair value is. Lowe and Martinez have made it clear they're out of here, unless the Sox are prepared to pay them a lot more than is currently on the table. Garciaparra, who has made no attempt to hide his hurt over the way the club went after Alex Rodriguez last winter and then made a reduced offer to him, almost certainly won't be giving any hometown discounts to stay.

Why anyone not directly involved should be offended by the behavior of either the players or the club is a mystery here. In negotiations, people get frustrated, they get angry, they often say things they don't mean, and at the end of the day, if the price is right, all is forgiven. If not, people move on. Now, if the Red Sox should let the Big Four walk and make no effort by Opening Day 2005 to compensate for their loss by constructing a championship-caliber roster, then fans would be entitled to scream their sense of betrayal.

But have Theo and the Trio given anyone reason to doubt, since they took over, that they have a knack for team-building and are willing to pay top dollar to put a winner on the field? The signings of Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke don't appear to be doing things on the cheap, do they? And Epstein's proclivity for finding quality talent at bargain rates -- David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar -- affords him a flexibility that will allow him to make big moves -- pursuing Carlos Beltran, Edgar Renteria, Matt Morris, Kevin Millwood -- if the Big Four find the Sox' offers too light.

Garciaparra worked out at Fenway Park yesterday, taking ground balls for a third time this past week. By the end of this upcoming week, he easily could be in a position to take his rehab to the next phase, playing minor league games the way Trot Nixon is doing now. Give Garciaparra a week to 10 days to get his timing back, and barring a setback, the Sox will have their All-Star shortstop back before the end of the month.

Negotiations with him have been at a standstill since the end of spring training, and even then, there wasn't much movement. That $15 million-a-year, four-year deal that was taken off the table after last spring, when Garciaparra made a counteroffer, is still off the table. The Sox, who incensed Garciaparra by invoking a market correction when they offered him $12 million a year for four years early in December -- at a time when they were already well down the road to making the A-Rod deal happen -- have moved little from that number. Maybe a half-million more a year, while discussing a variety of ways the deal could be paid out.

There has been little talk since Garciaparra has been hurt, and it wouldn't be out of the question that Garciaparra may be the next to say he definitely will test free agency. He's already said he's not interested in negotiating during the season.

But don't get overwrought in imagining that this will become the Grand Distraction that sidetracks what is clearly the best Sox team in years. The Big Four have no less incentive to have big years. Will they put extra pressure on themselves, knowing they have to perform for the market? Given the personalities involved -- with the possible exception of Lowe -- that would hardly seem to be a worry. And it shouldn't pose a threat to the clubhouse chemistry that seems every bit as good as it was last season.

In some ways, it's better that the negotiations stop during the season, to avoid the back-and-forth stuff that poisoned Mo Vaughn's last months here. Even then, Vaughn nearly won a batting title on his way out the door. The Braves won in Tom Glavine's walk year; they won again in Greg Maddux's walk year. The Yankees won in Andy Pettitte's walk year; he won 21 games last season. The list is endless.

And it won't stop here.

Shea's stadium Richie Sexson's injury -- he dislocated a shoulder and sustained a small tear in his labrum on a checked swing -- opens a spot in Arizona for Shea Hillenbrand, who had been benched at third base in favor of rookie Chad Tracy. Hillenbrand will be given the majority of time at first base in Sexson's absence, and manager Bob Brenly intends to have him hit in the No. 4 spot in the order, despite Hillenbrand's .184 average for April. Sexson, who could be out 4-6 weeks, was the only player in the majors to play every inning of every game last year, and the first to do so since Cal Ripken in 1986. He was hurt just a day after hitting a 503-foot home run, the longest ever at Bank One Ballpark . . . A year after Mike Hampton had seemingly put the nightmare of Colorado behind him in Atlanta, the lefthander had a brutal April. Opponents are batting .371 against Hampton, who is 0-2 with an 8.41 ERA . . . Could the Orioles have gotten less return on the four-year, $28 million deal they gave David Segui after the 2000 season? Because of injuries, Segui has played in just 188 games, and he's back on the DL for the fourth time in two seasons. Segui played in only 67 games last year because of wrist, thumb, and hamstring injuries. He had a second surgery on the wrist over the winter, and is now out with more knee problems. At 37, Segui is a goner when his contract runs out after this season . . . Esteban Loaiza, the Cy Young Award candidate for the White Sox last summer, is having trouble avoiding the long ball. Loaiza has allowed seven home runs in 34 innings this season after giving up only 17 in 226 1/3 innings last season . . . Trouble in Toronto, after what manager Carlos Tosca called "the longest 48 hours of my life." General manager J.P. Ricciardi second-guessed Tosca on his own radio show after the manager did not lift starter Miguel Batista with a 4-1 lead at the start of the eighth inning when reliever Terry Adams was available. After the Jays blew the lead and lost, Tosca said he'd had a miscommunication with Adams. The next game, he installed Adams as the team's regular closer, and Adams blew the save opportunity. Only rain Friday night spared the Jays from the worst April in their history. Ricciardi rolled the dice on Aquilino Lopez to be the closer coming out of camp, but Lopez was sent to Triple A. Adams hasn't closed since he was with the Cubs in 1999. Justin Speier had the team's only save in April; the Red Sox, by contrast, had seven saves . . . Lefthanded pitcher Phil Dumatrait, who was Boston's first pick in the 2000 draft before being traded last July to the Reds for reliever Scott Williamson, is out for the year after undergoing elbow surgery.

Saving grace The Indians bullpen, turned upside-down when closer Bob Wickman was declared out for the season with an elbow injury in spring, entered the weekend with seven blown saves and a 7.42 ERA, and had allowed 20 of 45 inherited runners to score while retiring just 33 of 58 first batters. Former Red Sox farmhand Rafael Betancourt, who converted from shortstop to pitcher while in the Sox system, has been a workhorse, appearing in a dozen games. Betancourt, who was 2-3 with a 4.15 ERA entering play yesterday, had blown his only two save opportunities but had struck out 15 while not walking a batter in 13 innings. That should come as no surprise to anyone who recalls the Venezuelan righthander's pro debut: In 1997, with Single A Michigan in the Midwest League, Betancourt, then 22, struck out 52 while walking just 2 in 32 1/3 innings . . . Carlton Fisk reportedly told Mets officials that he'll show up at Shea Stadium next week if Mike Piazza has already passed him for most home runs by a catcher. Piazza tied Fisk last week with his 351st homer in games he has been behind the plate . . . What's wrong with Barry Zito? In successive starts, the A's lefthander gave up a career-high nine runs to the Angels, then served up four home runs to the Yankees, the most he's ever allowed . . . Derek Jeter's 0-for-32 streak was the longest by a Yankee since the Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn, went 0 for 32 in 1977. Jeter's streak ended with a first-pitch home run off Zito. "A streak like that, you wouldn't wish on anyone," Jeter said. "Even guys on the other team have been supportive. It's rough when you're going through it, but you're the only one that can get yourself out of it." . . . Former Red Sox reliever Chad Fox fears he may have blown out his elbow after pitching four successive days for the Marlins. He is on the DL, and already has had two reconstructive surgeries on his elbow and a third procedure in which screws were inserted . . . Did it take motormouth catcher A.J. Pierzynski only a month to wear out his welcome in San Francisco? The Giants were holding player-only meetings Friday after anonymous teammates ripped him to the Oakland Tribune, one player referring to him as a "cancer." Pierzynski did not deny that he had, indeed, kept playing cards one day even after that day's starting pitcher, Brett Tomko, asked him to go over hitters . . . Lou Piniella, who acknowledged in spring training that he quit smoking, revealed to Mark Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times that he has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. "This had been on the horizon," Piniella, 60, told Topkin. "I'm taking pills to keep my blood sugar down, and I'm going to go on a diet and lose some weight."

Material from personal interviews, wire service reports, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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