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Twilight has bright shine

BALTIMORE -- It's a phrase that lives in Red Sox infamy, and one that Theo and the Trio are certain never to invoke if, indeed, Pedro Martinez elects one day to follow Roger Clemens out of town.

But a friend who says he was privy to the process eight years ago that led Dan Duquette to utter that Clemens was in the "twilight of his career" insists that the words did not originate on the former general manager's brainpan. Instead, the friend swears, they came off the computer screen of a Sox public relations type who was warned he might be overstating his case but who refused to hit the delete button.

Duquette, of course, was under no obligation to refer to the prepared script, as any number of speechwriters in town this week who have been ignored by the candidates of their choice could attest. That he did bespoke an institutional myopia that caused Duquette no amount of pain thereafter, and led, in part, to an exile almost as complete as that of the Bay State's other Duke, Michael Dukakis.

(That should not be taken as a slam, incidentally, at the earnest lads who play for the Berkshire Dukes of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, a team owned and named after the former Sox GM).

Martinez will be 33 Oct. 25, which will make him only one year younger than Clemens when the Rocket left for Toronto as a free agent devalued by the Sox (and in truth, by many media members and Sox followers).

There has been slippage, to be sure, on the Martinez market -- the panic sellers tend to surface after a game like Martinez's last start, when he was cuffed for a season-high eight runs by the Orioles last week in Fenway Park. But then comes an outing like last night here in Camden Yards, where Martinez coasted to his 11th win against four defeats, a 12-5 dismantling of Baltimore in which he had a three-hit shutout until his attention lagged with a 10-run lead in the sixth and he gave up a two-run home run to Miguel Tejada, king of the All-Star Home Run Derby, and some garbage-time runs in the seventh.

Martinez gave the club a bit of a scare in the seventh when he squatted at the mound in apparent discomfort, prompting a visit from manager Terry Francona and trainer Chris Correnti. Just "a little pinch" in his right hip, said Martinez, though he plans to test it this afternoon to make certain it's only a trifling concern.

One Oriole advanced as far as second base in the first five innings -- catcher Javier Lopez opened the fifth with a double. Three times Martinez faced the object of his October disdain -- former Yankee Karim Garcia (one pressbox wag suggested Martinez's ESPN interview clip in which he derisively spits out, "Who is Karim Garcia?" should be spliced into a "Jeopardy" segment). Garcia struck out twice, the first time swinging through a 94 mile-an-hour fastball, and popped to second in his last at-bat, just before Martinez was dismissed from the rest of the exercise.

"A game like that," Francona said, "I don't want to leave him out there any longer than I thought he needed to be out there. I thought he pitched great."

Only four pitchers have won more games this season than Martinez, one being his teammate, Curt Schilling, who has 12 victories. Schilling, remember, said he came here only because the Sox gave him assurances they would not allow Schilling to suffer the fate of his former running mate, Randy Johnson, who three years ago was sharing World Series MVP honors with Schilling and now is grumbling through a franchise-worst 14-game losing streak, including a recently completed homestand in which Arizona lost all 11 games.

One way to spare Schilling a similar comedown is not to replace the likes of a Martinez with a Casey Fossum, which, in essence, is what the Diamondbacks did to Johnson when they traded Schilling last November for Fossum and Brandon Lyon, the forgotten reliever who has been hurt all season and just in the last few days began a rehab assignment. Those are the kind of roster moves that led to the Big Unit going to his bosses and demanding a trade to the Bronx, citing the hitherto unknown "guaranteed World Series clause" as a condition of the deal.

And while Arizona management would have you cling to the belief that they cannot bear to part with the Unit, Johnson's teammates obviously think otherwise, with players -- and their kids! -- lining up for Johnson to autograph some favorite items. What does a 6-foot-10-inch pinstripe look like? Sooner than later, it appears, we are about to find out.

Where Martinez's personal odyssey takes him has become a secondary theme these days to the Boston groupthink now in vogue, with the Sox refocused on winning a date to play in October. Such a solidarity of purpose in future tall-tale telling will be traced to the Saturday afternoon rumble in the Fens in which Jason Varitek rubbed his glove in Alex Rodriguez's pretty face and the Sox watched each other's backs with a ferocity undetected in the season's first 100 days.

Martinez has taken more than a few hits for supposedly placing his personal welfare ahead of the team thing, especially when he takes off on his annual midsummer hiatus in the Dominican Republic while the Sox' other hired hands toil on, at least those with hamstrings hardy enough to carry on. But outside of Schilling, there is no one on the pitching staff who has done more for the common cause than Martinez, who has lost just once in eight decisions since May 16.

Just as his friend and fellow Dominican David Ortiz stands unchallenged as the game's most productive hitter from last All-Star break to this one, so, too, Martinez has delivered at a rate much less spectacular but almost as effective as his best years in a Sox uniform. Since last year's All-Star Game, Martinez has a record of 19-6 with a 3.35 ERA in 34 starts. He has 226 strikeouts in 220 1/3 innings, an average of 9.23 K's per nine innings, and opponents are batting just .233 against him. In those 34 starts, the Sox went 22-12.

"That's good to know," he said with a smile.

Now look at his performance from the All-Star break in 1999, to this date in, 2000, when Martinez was at his peak. He was 19-4 in 28 starts with a 1.62 ERA, an unfathomable .177 opponents' batting average, and a K's per 9 IP ratio of 13.07. The club was 23-7 in his games. A dropoff? The kind immortals have with high odometer readings. Are the shadows lengthening? Absolutely. Is there twilight on the horizon?

Only if you're looking awfully hard to see it. Do so at your peril.

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