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RED SOX 6, DEVIL RAYS 0

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Martinez earns rare shutout by stifling Tampa

Lots of laughs last night at the Comedy Connection. Lots of fun as Tim Wakefield and Johnny Damon hosted the kickoff party for their charity golf tournament.

And why not? The Red Sox and their legions of loyalists had plenty to smile about in the afterglow of Pedro Martinez twirling his first shutout in four years, a 6-0 laugher over the Devil Rays before 34,804 at Fenway Park. The victory was their third straight and lifted the Sox a season-high 13 games above .500 as they took over sole possession of the top spot in the wild-card standings with Anaheim's loss to Baltimore.

Wakefield could rest easier during his abbreviated night of comedy as he prepared to try to keep the streak alive tonight against the White Sox. Damon could happily zip about town on his motorcycle, unburdened by the albatross of another loss. And Martinez could take a great measure of pride in knowing the difference he has made for the Sox as he improved to 13-4 and positioned himself for a run at another 20-win season.

When the Sox have needed him the most, Martinez has lost only once in his last 15 starts.

"I just feel confident enough to do what I've been doing," he said as he burnished his resume for challenging the likes of Mark Mulder, Johan Santana, and Curt Schilling for the Cy Young Award. "I hope it continues to be that way."

With his latest mastery, Martinez scattered six hits, walked none, and struck out 10 for his first shutout since he one-hit the Rays in a brawl game Aug. 29, 2000, at Tampa Bay. He fired 109 pitches in hurling his first complete game since he went the distance against the Rays last Sept. 16 in the Fens for his 100th victory in a Boston uniform.

"He's one of the best pitchers we've ever seen in this game, and that's what he's showing," said Kevin Youkilis, whose solo homer off Tampa Bay starter Mark Hendrickson provided the only run Martinez needed.

As the Sox continued to capitalize on sound defense and timely hitting -- so much timely hitting that even third base coach Dale Sveum could muster a smile after Tampa Bay center fielder Rocco Baldelli remarkably burned him by twice more gunning down Sox runners at the plate -- Martinez further silenced the skeptics who doubted him early in the season. He repeatedly hit 93 on the radar gun, held the Rays hitless in eight tries with runners in scoring position, and controlled the strike zone so completely that he went to ball three against only two batters, both in the ninth inning.

Manager Terry Francona all but guaranteed Martinez would flourish over the course of the season despite the early panic created by the diminished velocity of his fastball.

"A guy that's done what Pedro has done deserves all our patience and backing," Francona said. "A guy like that is not supposed to show up on March 4 throwing 95 or he won't finish the season. He's a smart guy, he works hard, and he's doing what he's supposed to do."

At a pretty good time. Martinez helped the Sox, who badly need to put together a solid run of success, win a third straight game for the first time in nearly three weeks.

"The good ones know when it's August and September," pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "We're not playing any more important games than we have all year. He has a sense for it."

The crazy thing is, Martinez almost seems as if he needs to continue proving himself. When a reporter conveyed that impression to Jason Varitek, Martinez's catcher, Varitek said, "Pedro has pitched well all year. I don't know what everybody's deal is. He's had a couple of bad starts, but who doesn't?"

His last three have been particularly impressive, as he has gone 2-0 and surrendered only three earned runs over 23 innings for a 1.17 ERA. He has warmed to the weather.

"I did have my problems early in the season," Martinez said. "The weather was worse than I have ever faced before. It wasn't just cold, it was too cold. From one inning to another, it's so cold, you can't handle it. You can't feel the ball. You don't know what you're doing. You're not loosening up. But as the weather has gone along, I've gotten better."

Much better. Just ask the Devil Rays.

"He's not the power guy he used to be, but he pitches, I'll tell you that," Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella said. "He was in full control out there."

Only one Devil Ray reached third, and the runners who did reach base could do little more than witness Martinez mow down their mates. Even when Aubrey Huff doubled leading off the ninth inning, Martinez prevailed, retiring the next three batters without allowing a ball out of the infield. He ended the game by fanning Jose Cruz on a 93-mile-per-hour heater.

"We have the two best pitchers in the league right now in Pedro Martinez and Schilling," said Kevin Millar, who doubled home a run to continue his tear. "That's why we've got to claw our way into the playoffs, because these guys can dominate a game."

With the Sox leading, 1-0, thanks to the shot by Youkilis, Bill Mueller (3 for 3 with a walk) ignited an insurance rally by doubling to lead off the third inning. Mueller scored on Gabe Kapler's one-out single before David Ortiz singled home Kapler to stake Martinez to a 3-0 advantage.

The Sox broke it open in the fifth with five straight hits, starting with a pair of singles by Manny Ramirez and Ortiz, setting the table for Millar's RBI double. Varitek then singled in Ramirez, but when Sveum sent Millar home as well, Baldelli foiled the gambit with a one-hop strike to the plate.

Good thing the Sox were leading, 5-0, because when Orlando Cabrera followed with a single to center, Sveum sent Varitek home, only for Baldelli to throw him out, too.

Francona said Millar and Varitek may have contributed to Baldelli's back-to-back assists by taking wide turns around third base. He also described Sveum as a "pretty good third base coach" and refrained from criticizing him. Instead, Francona said Sveum has what it takes to make it in Boston: a thick skin.

"It's a third base coach's nightmare," Francona said, "but that's one of the reason's he's here, because he can handle it."

With a smile.

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