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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Martinez's trouble is a real curveball

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Suddenly, the starting pitching is less than ordinary. The Red Sox have allowed a whopping 67 runs in their last eight games. The Sox are a season-low 2 1/2 games out of first place, and again Red Sox Nation wonders what's wrong with Pedro Martinez.

It's one thing to see Derek Lowe and Bronson Arroyo implode in the sixth inning earlier this week, but it had to be even more painful for night owl citizens of the Nation who watched Pedro struggle mightily in five-plus innings against Hell's Angels late Wednesday.

Pedro blew a 7-4 lead. He gave up 11 hits and seven runs while failing to get an out in the sixth. Here's some perspective on those numbers: He's given up 11 hits or more (12 is his career high) only six times in the big leagues. He's given up seven earned runs or more only eight times in his career, and two of those games came this year. He gave up only seven homers in 186 2/3 innings last year and he's already given up 10 in 75 2/3 innings this year.

Does Pedro have an injury or was this just another uneven performance in an uneven season? Are we watching his skills decline in front of our eyes, or is Pedro struggling because he's anxious about his impending free agency -- a charge that's been leveled at the animated Lowe through this season?

Personally, I think it's Pedro's new Shaughnessy hairstyle that might be messing him up, but whatever is going on, Martinez needs to get back on track or he can forget about George Steinbrenner dangling many millions for many years on a guy with John Burkett stuff. Pedro is making $17.5 million this year, more than any pitcher in history, and thus far he has not delivered. A salary of $17.5 million should buy you more than five wins in 12 starts with a pedestrian ERA of 4.40.

Pedro told us location is his problem. He said he's healthy. He said his velocity is coming back (and the Anaheim radar gun had him as high as 94 miles per hour), but he needs to work on the side to get his breaking stuff back in the right places.

"I'm struggling a little bit lately," he acknowledged. "I seem to be lost with my breaking stuff . . . It's always concerning for me. I'm not used to that, but I'm not going to let that affect my approach. I'm just going to have to swallow what's happening now."

Nothing came easily against the torrid Angels. He threw a cookie curveball to the ferocious Vladimir Guerrero in the first inning and baseball's best player (go ahead, argue that one) launched a heat-seeking missile over the wall in left. The homer accounted for the first two of Guerrero's nine RBIs in Anaheim's 10-7 win, but who was counting?

We were counting pitches, as we always do with Pedro, and he threw 22 before he got the second out of the game.

Pedro reached an impressive milestone when he recorded his 2,500th career strikeout in the third. But what a price he paid. It may have been the most difficult strikeout of his career. After falling behind Casey Kotchman, 3 and 0, Martinez started throwing strikes and Kotchman started fouling them off. It was a tad insulting that Kotchman would be permitted to swing at a 3-and-0 pitch from Pedro Martinez, but the old rules no longer apply when discussing the Sox ace.

So there was Pedro, throwing pitch after pitch, and the immortal Kotchman was able to foul off 11 in a row. Base runners Guerrero and Jose Guillen were ready to collapse when Kotchman finally whiffed on the 15th pitch of his at-bat, swinging and missing at a curveball. But it was remarkable to see anyone make contact with 11 consecutive pitches from Pedro Martinez. It was mildly reminiscent of some Yankee at-bats last fall at Fenway when Martinez had trouble putting away the likes of Nick Johnson.

He was unusually demonstrative in the 10-7 loss. He threw his glove and a towel in the dugout after a sloppy fourth inning and pitching coach Dave Wallace was in Pedro's face, apparently delivering some deep therapy before the fatal sixth.

Naturally, Terry Francona, forever a glass-half-full guy, thinks everything is just dandy with Pedro. The manager cited Martinez's work in the fifth when he escaped from a second-and-third, no-outs jam, retiring the bottom third of the Angels order without giving up a run.

"They made Pedro fight for everything," said Francona. "In the fifth, he flat-out competed. He was not going to let them score . . . Since I've been here, that's the best I've seen him throw the ball."

Too bad Francona wasn't around to see Pedro in 1999.

The manager insists Martinez is the same dominant pitcher he's always been.

"I go by his track record," said Francona. "It's not been perfect this year, but I'm telling you, that's how I feel."

A safe distance from those raging Angels (at this hour there is no team more entertaining than Anaheim), the Sox open a three-game series in Kansas City, Mo., tonight. Pedro won't pitch until Tuesday at home against the San Diego Padres. Meanwhile, Francona has to be wondering which starters he can trust. Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield have been the most dependable members of his rotation.

"You go through bumps like this," said catcher/captain Jason Varitek. "Pitching is how we won early, so it's there."

The good news is the Angels can't hurt the Red Sox again until after the All-Star break. The last-place Royals will be a welcome sight after what Vladimir Guerrero and the Hell's Angels did to the Red Sox and Pedro Martinez this week.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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