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Still coasting along

Martinez breezes as Sox sweep away Oakland

OAKLAND -- Amid the stormy gloom in Gotham, the rain-idled Yankees last night had plenty of time to gather in front of their televisions and watch the Red Sox Express roar toward them. The national telecast might have been enough to send a jittery Boss Steinbrenner searching his Bartlett's Familiar Quotations for some "Little Engine That Could" metaphor.

Make no mistake. If the Sox continue playing like they did in their three-game massacre against the American League West-leading Athletics, there could be a train wreck when Terry Francona's crew rolls into the Bronx next week.

The streaking Sox all but did no wrong as they whipped A's bulldog Tim Hudson behind the latest mastery by Pedro Martinez to win their 20th game in 22 tries and complete a staggering three-game sweep, 8-3, before 39,575 at Network Associates Coliseum. With the victory, the Sox climbed within two games of the division-leading Yankees for the first time since June 2, a span of 85 games and a whole lot of tumult.

The Sox also expanded their lead over the Angels in the wild card race to five games as they finished a defining nine-game stretch against the Angels, Rangers, and A's at 8-1.

"It means we are ready to play anybody on any grounds at anytime right now," Martinez said. "We're that hot. We're just rolling. Any team that stands in front of us is going to have a hard time."

Next stop, Seattle, where the Sox open a four-game series tonight against the Mariners, losers of seven straight.

"This shows we're for real," Damon said of taking eight of nine from three straight playoff contenders. "It shows everyone we're peaking at the right time, pitchers, defense, and hitters."

Martinez (.715) and Hudson (.711) entered the game with the two highest career winning percentages among active pitchers, but Martinez turned the matchup into a laugher as he two-hit the A's over six scoreless innings to improve to 16-5 and remain in contention for the Cy Young Award with Curt Schilling, Minnesota's Johan Santana, and Oakland's Mark Mulder. It helped that the Sox staked him to a 3-0 lead after one inning and 7-0 cushion after three.

"It's really nice to go out there and realize you just have to throw strikes and make things happen, to actually push the other team to come and get you," Martinez said.

Even though Hudson had won his last four starts, he was no match for the Sox, who battered him for seven runs on six hits, five walks, and a hit batsman over three innings, his shortest start since Sept. 3, 2003 in Baltimore. He fired 38 pitches in a nightmarish first inning and 79 over his three-inning thrashing.

"We did a great job against Hudson," Francona said. "Obviously, he wasn't commanding like he normally is, but I think we deserve some credit for that because we laid off pitches and made him work. He's one of the best."

Every member of the starting lineup produced for the Sox, either knocking in or scoring at least one run, as they completed their first three-game sweep in Oakland since May 7-9, 2002.

With the Sox in complete command after six innings, Francona pulled Martinez after 83 pitches and sent out Pedro Astacio for his debut in a Boston uniform. "I was pleased we could get him out," Francona said of Martinez. "I think that will really help him in the next start."

Astacio survived the seventh before he surrendered two runs in the eighth. Terry Adams allowed the final run in the ninth before Keith Foulke needed to rescue him from a bases-loaded mess.

The blowout also allowed Francona to return Pokey Reese to action at second base for the first time since July 19 and send Trot Nixon to play right field for the first time since July 24. Third baseman Kevin Youkilis also appeared as a defensive replacement, his first action since Aug. 15. And catcher Sandy Martinez made his Sox debut, striking out as a pinch hitter in the ninth.

Pedro Martinez, who won his 117th game for the Sox, tying Smoky Joe Wood for fifth place on the club's all-time list, extended his streak of scoreless innings to 16 as he lowered his ERA to 3.44. Martinez is 12-2 since May 22. He allowed only a one-out single to Marco Scutaro in the third inning and a leadoff double to Eric Byrnes in the sixth.

As for the pitching-rich A's, they dropped to 1-8 this year against the Sox as their staff posted an 8.00 ERA over the nine games, their highest against any team in a regular season since they logged an 8.58 ERA against Milwaukee in 1994.

Hudson's stunning struggle began with each of the first three Sox batters -- Johnny Damon, Mark Bellhorn, and Manny Ramirez -- making him labor by working the count to 3-2 before they walked to load the bases. Two pitches later, David Ortiz rifled a two-run single to right, knocking in Damon, who scored in his 11th straight game, and Bellhorn, who had reached safely in his 21st straight game.

With Ramirez at third base after Ortiz's single, Jason Varitek dinged Hudson for an RBI single, making it 3-0.

Hudson put himself in jeopardy again by hitting Varitek with his first pitch of the third and extended his misery by surrendering consecutive singles to Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, loading the bases for the second time in three innings. Bill Mueller (0 for 10 in his career against Hudson) then eked out a run-producing walk, Dave Roberts bounced into a fielder's choice, driving in Cabrera, and Damon looped a broken-bat single to right to knock in Mientkiewicz for a 6-0 lead. The single extended Damon's hitting streak to 11 games.

In the final unkind cut against Hudson, Bellhorn bounced into a fielder's choice to usher in Roberts for a 7-0 advantage.

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