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Rays are spoilsports

Rookie Kazmir takes the fun out of Fenway and the air out of Sox

Kevin Millar, at the center of a scrum of New York media types seeking some back-page material for the weekend Red Sox-Yankees series, insisted before last night's first pitch that his team's focus had not strayed ahead to the pinstripers.

"It's Tampa tonight," said Millar, noting that the Sox should have fared better than they did last weekend against another bottom-feeder, the Seattle Mariners. "I can't comment on the Yankee series until we get there.

"The most important part to us winning 10 in a row last month was beating Detroit four in a row before the Angels came to town."

No such running start will accompany the visit to the Bronx this weekend, however. The Sox, blanked by Seattle's Gil Meche at the end of their West Coast swing Sunday, put up more zeros with alarming regularity last night against the D-Rays and lefthander Scott Kazmir, who possessed precisely the attributes most dangerous to the Sox this season: He's a rookie, and the Sox hadn't seen him before, a combination that has proven lethal a half-dozen times.

The youngest pitcher in the big leagues (20 years 7 months) outpitched Pedro Martinez, who gave up home runs to a couple of other precocious kids, Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, in a 5-2 Tampa Bay win that dropped the Sox four games behind the Yankees in the AL East with 19 to play. The Bombers were 4-0 winners last night in Kansas City.

The Sox, who trailed, 5-0, until Trot Nixon hit his first regular-season pinch-hit home run in the eighth off reliever Travis Harper with a man on, are fretting that they may have suffered a more significant loss: Third baseman Bill Mueller, who apparently reinjured his right knee over the weekend in Seattle, left last night's game in the fifth inning and was scheduled to undergo an MRI today, according to team doctor Bill Morgan.

"We'll know more in a few days," general manager Theo Epstein said. Asked if Mueller, who is listed as day to day, might miss the Yankee series, Epstein said, "It's too early to tell."

This much is indisputable: Mueller, who is Boston's leading hitter against the Yankees this season with a .412 average and hit arguably the season's most dramatic home run, a ninth-inning walkoff against Mariano Rivera in the July 24 brawl game at Fenway Park, has soreness in his right knee, the same one that sidelined him for 37 games after arthroscopic surgery May 28.

"I think he aggravated it a little bit on defense," Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He said something to me in the dugout, after his last at-bat, that he should come out and have it looked at."

Mueller had grounded into a first-to-home double play with the bases loaded to end the second inning, the Sox' best chance to score against Kazmir, who held the Sox to three hits while striking out nine in six innings. That was a bewildering development for the sellout crowd of 35,118 in Fenway Park, where winning has practically become a given. The Sox had won 12 of their last 13 games on Yawkey Way and had not lost back-to-back games anywhere in more than a month (Aug. 4 and 6).

"You have to tip your cap and give credit to the little rookie who came out and pitched well," said Martinez, who allowed just two runs in six innings while striking out 10, his sixth 10-K game of the season, but fell short of winning his fourth straight start, his record dropping to 16-6.

Five walks, one short of his career high, led to Martinez's departure after a 113-pitch yield in six innings.

"All night I felt like I wasn't in my groove," he said.

Crawford led off the game, and ended Martinez's 16-inning scoreless streak, by driving the second pitch, an 86 mile-per-hour fastball, into the Monster seats. Baldelli, the second-year man from Rhode Island, duplicated that feat in the third, jumping on a curveball that lingered over the plate.

Francona emptied his bullpen in an attempt to keep the Sox close, using six relievers, but the D-Rays tacked on a pair of runs in the seventh against Alan Embree and Mike Timlin (both charged to Embree) and another in the eighth off Ramiro Mendoza. The Sox brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth against D-Rays closer Danys Baez when Jason Varitek was hit by a pitch and Millar walked with two out, but Orlando Cabrera lined to left to end it. The D-Rays only recently broke a 12-game losing streak, had allowed 8 or more runs nine times in their last 14 games, and had lost 10 of their previous 13 meetings with the Sox. That all turned around behind Kazmir.

"I was very impressed with how he was able to throw the curveball, for someone to make me look that silly," said Johnny Damon, whose only visit to the basepaths was cut short when he was thrown out stealing after drawing a first-inning walk.

Kazmir was the Mets' top prospect until he was traded to Tampa Bay for the wild (and now hurt) Victor Zambrano.

"We knew, coming in, that kid by reputation," Francona said.

Millar, who had two of Boston's three hits off Kazmir, also was picked off second base after his leadoff double in the fifth. Kazmir whiffed five straight batters between the third and fourth inning, and whiffed Mark Bellhorn three times, Bellhorn ending a miserable night by taking a called third strike from Harper in the eighth.

"You just have to think that hopefully we won't have to face another rookie," said Martinez, apparently unaware that in his next scheduled start, Sunday in the Bronx, he is lined up to face New York rookie Brad Halsey. "These rookies are giving us a headache." 

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