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Muddling Millar still starter

Francona backing his slumping player

NEW YORK -- The Red Sox could have fielded a lineup last night without Kevin Millar, whose early struggles have made him a lightning rod, at least in some circles, for criticism of the team. Manager Terry Francona had options, including replacing Millar at first base with David Ortiz, using Mark Bellhorn as the designated hitter, and playing Kevin Youkilis at third rather than Bellhorn.

But Francona stood by Millar, who started at first base despite entering the game batting .176 (3 for 17) against Yankees starter Javier Vazquez.

"I think it's my job, my responsibility, to stand behind guys," Francona said. "I ask them to show up every day and try as best they can to be as good a player as they can be. It doesn't always work out perfectly, but if I bail on them, I don't agree with that."

No one appreciates the support more than Millar, who is keenly aware of the hits he has taken among some fans and commentators. Millar is batting .270 with five homers and 21 RBIs in 70 games. He got off to a sensational start last year, batting .319 with 12 homers and 57 RBIs through his first 70 games. Millar went 1 for 4 last night.

"I truly thank Terry 100 percent for everything he has done in sticking with me," Millar said. "That means a lot as a player. We're human beings. I know I haven't hit up to my capabilities the first couple of months. I know that more than anybody does. It means a lot that your manager is behind you and realizes that things are going to be OK."

He said he has played for managers whose "noose" tightens quickly.

"He's in a tough situation because he gets it from different media guys," Millar said. "But OK, great, do you want to release me? Do you want to cut me? That's not the point. The point is, I'm an important part of this team. We're all spokes on this team, and we're all going to be there in the end. These are all building times for August and September. If you hit a big double off Mariano Rivera Aug. 28, nobody remembers about the little struggles you had in May."

Millar has taken Trot Nixon's advice and started growing out his beard in his latest attempt to change his fortunes, even if the brown beard contrasts with his bleached-blond hair (another luck-changing effort).

Nixon recalled Millar hitting well with a beard. Still, Millar suggested his early decline at the plate has been magnified amid some public unhappiness with the team.

"We're in the exact same spot we were last year except for what, that I don't have 40 RBIs and 11 homers next to my name?" he said. "The big thing is, people forget that it's not about me. This is a team, and as a team we're playing well. What do you do? Get rid of this spoke and replace it with another spoke? The only thing I can do as a player is keep coming out and working hard, knowing that it's going to happen."

Making his case

Just in case it could make a difference, Ortiz arrived in New York with a plan to enhance his chances of making the All-Star team. Joe Torre of the Yankees will manage the American League squad.

"I'm going to take him out for dinner tonight just to make sure of that," joked Ortiz, who hit his 20th homer last night, thus matching his second-best seasonal total before he slugged 31 last year for the Sox. His previous career high at the All-Star break, including last year, was 10.

Ortiz was left off the All-Star ballot because he was pigeonholed as a designated hitter. The game will be played in Houston under National League rules, which prohibit the DH. But Ortiz has started more games at first base (25) this year than any Sox player (Millar is second at 24).

But no one expects the AL to field a team without Ortiz, even if it could be difficult because each AL team needs to be represented on the squad.

"Every year there are people who don't make it," Francona said. "I can see why the player wouldn't understand. There's no fair way if you're taking somebody from each team. But if David's not an All-Star, nobody is."

One of the most feared sluggers in baseball this season, Ortiz is eager to represent the Sox in the game. Manny Ramirez is the only Sox player poised to be elected on the original ballot. Several teammates, most notably Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and Keith Foulke, could be selected.

"It would mean a lot to me because I've never been to an All-Star Game in the big leagues," Ortiz said. "I'd be very happy and proud to go and represent the American League. It would be a pleasure."

Francona, by the way, opposes the rule requiring each team to be represented at the midsummer classic.

"I think it's an All-Star team," he said. "I understand the concept. I'm not sure I agree with it."

Reese returns

Pokey Reese returned to the lineup (1 for 4) after missing four games with a sprained left thumb. His thumb was heavily taped and he wore a removable splint inside his glove. "It's been tough knowing I can't get out there and help the team," he said. Reese impressed the Sox with how aggressively he tried to come back. "This is one where he could have just said, `I'm hurt,' and let it go for a while and he'd get better," Francona said. "But he's doing everything in his power to get better and play, and he'll help us." . . . Johnny Damon slugged the 13th homer of his career leading off a game and his first since Aug. 1, 2002 in Texas. His solo shot in the third inning gave him his first multi-homer game since April 10, 2003 in Toronto and the sixth of his career . . . The Sox have lost six of their last nine games overall and nine of their last 13 on the road. They had won their previous seven series openers at Yankee Stadium since 2002 . . . The Sox pulled off a two-fer, with Ramirez gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated and Schilling making the cover of The Sporting News. Ramirez is atop the headline "Hitting Pretty -- The Sweet-Swinging Days of Manny Ramirez" . . . Francona said Martinez may not start the first game after the All-Star break, even though it would be his turn to pitch. "He may not be the first one out of the gate so he can have a side day and get your legs under you and pitch good," the manager said. The rotation is expected to stay in place until the break, which means Martinez has two more starts, tomorrow against the Yankees and July 7 against the Athletics at Fenway . . . Bill Mueller continued his rehab assignment by going 2 for 4 with an RBI in Triple A Pawtucket's 5-4 loss at Norfolk last night. Ellis Burks did not play . . . Francona left open the possibility Bellhorn could see some time at first base after Mueller returns. Bellhorn started seven games at first for the Cubs in 2002 . . . Byung Hyun Kim is scheduled to make the third outing in his latest rehab stint with Pawtucket today, but Ramiro Mendoza has gone back to long-tossing for the PawSox as he tries to overcome his latest injury: a stiff neck.

Thanks for nothing

Count Mike Timlin as another Red Sox who is not a fan of Yankee Stadium. Late in the afternoon, before any of the Sox came out for stretching and hitting, Timlin was playing catch with his 7-year-old son in front of the Boston dugout when he was told by a security officer that the child was not allowed on the field. "Great city," muttered Timlin . . . Much of the pregame buzz concerned the arrival of vice president Dick Cheney, who was advanced by a team of Secret Service agents large enough to protect a couple of city boroughs. Cheney made it in time to visit both clubhouses. Also in attendance were New York Governor George Pataki and the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani.

Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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