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Plunkings strike a sour note

Hit batsmen bring ejections

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- They may never be mistaken for the boys from the Bronx as Boston's archrivals. But the Devil Rays picked up last night where the Yankees left off Sunday, squaring off with the Red Sox in an incident that emptied both dugouts and bullpens before Terry Francona's crew celebrated the clinching of a playoff spot.

Tensions began to rise when Sox starter Bronson Arroyo drilled Aubrey Huff in the left knee with one out and a runner on first base in the third inning. A batter later, with the Sox trailing, 1-0, and pinch runner Jorge Cantu at second for the injured Huff, Arroyo plunked Tino Martinez in the back, prompting Martinez to take a step toward the mound and jaw at Arroyo on his way to first base.

"When I first hit them, I didn't think it was any big deal," said Arroyo, who described both pitches as runaway breaking balls. "But thinking back after the inning, I realized that Huff, their best hitter, had to come out of the game and Tino is probably their clubhouse leader, so it didn't look very good. I figured somebody was definitely getting hit."

Sure enough, the Rays retaliated with one out in the fourth when Scott Kazmir, who had not allowed a hit, dinged Manny Ramirez in the left thigh. Ramirez took one hop-step toward Kazmir before heading to first base. And plate umpire Bruce Dreckman responded by issuing warnings to both benches.

Then Kazmir, with a score still to settle, fired another pitch into Kevin Millar's back, prompting Millar to lurch angrily toward Kazmir. As catcher Toby Hall blocked Millar, the benches cleared, though no blows were exchanged. The most animated player appeared to be Curt Schilling, who was pulled back by Tim Wakefield as he waded toward the Rays.

The incident turned into a break for the Sox, since Kazmir was ejected along with Rays manager Lou Piniella. With Kazmir gone, the Sox came back from a 2-0 deficit for the 7-3 victory.

"I thought it was poor judgment on the umpire's part," Piniella said. "A kid had a no-hitter going. He wasn't trying to hit Millar."

Crew chief Gerry Davis said the umpires believed Kazmir intended to hit both Ramirez and Millar.

"We had a heads-up [from MLB] for this series," Davis said, "because of bad blood in the past."

Huff was listed as day to day with a bruised knee.

Not up to speed
Barring last-minute magic, Scott Williamson appears poised to spend the postseason as a spectator. Williamson, one of the most valuable relievers in last year's playoffs, learned from Francona and pitching coach Dave Wallace before last night's game that he effectively has the final six games of the regular season to improve his velocity and show he can pitch on consecutive days, a prerequisite for the postseason.

Though he has every intention of trying to convince the Sox he has regained the arm strength that made him one of the league's most effective setup men last year, he appeared resigned to his current inability to increase his velocity. He opened the season hitting up to 95 on the radar gun but has struggled to hit 91 since he returned from a 10-week stint on the disabled list.

"This is what I've got," he said, "and it's not a secret anymore."

Lingering elbow soreness also has prevented him from pitching on consecutive days. He informed the Sox Sunday, for instance, that he was unable to pitch.

"If it's not coming back, there's probably a reason for it not coming back," he said of his velocity, implying the injury has played a role. He said he may need to rest during the offseason for his velocity to return.

Still, Williamson has pitched four scoreless innings since he returned from the DL Sept. 9, surrendering only two hits. Opponents have hit only .105 against him.

Williamson is competing with Ramiro Mendoza and Curtis Leskanic, among others, for the final spot in the pen.

"He's kind of a wild card," Francona said. "He's been so good, we know what he can be. We'll try and see if he can get back to that point because what he can do when he's close to healthy is pretty darn good."

But time is running out.

"He's frustrated a little bit, which is understandable," Francona said. "But he also recognizes that he's not throwing like he did, and he frankly doesn't know if he's going to or not."

Full-time starters
Arroyo became the fifth Sox pitcher this year to make at least 28 starts, a first in franchise history. Schilling and Pedro Martinez have started 32 games each, while Derek Lowe and Wakefield have started 31. The closest the Sox had come previously was 1996, when four pitchers made 28 or more starts: Roger Clemens (34), Tom Gordon (34), Wakefield (32), and Aaron Sele (29). When Arroyo completed the sixth inning, the five Sox starters each had topped 175 innings, marking the first time five Sox pitchers had done so in a season since 1929 . . . It turns out Major League Baseball banned Johnny Pesky from the Sox dugout after a complaint from the Orioles, who played four games at Fenway Park last week. Pesky received the written notice banning him Thursday. The Sox had little choice but to accept the decision since Pesky technically was violating a rule established last year . . . Francona, without conceding the division, began resting players, sitting designated hitter David Ortiz and third baseman Bill Mueller against Kazmir, a lefthander. Francona said both players will start today and tomorrow. Francona also used Ramirez as the DH to help him rest his sore hamstrings. Millar made his 11th start in left field, while David McCarty, who could be one of the odd men out in the postseason, made his 23d start at first base. Trot Nixon also rested against the lefty, with Gabe Kapler making his team-high 58th start in right field . . . Ortiz leads the league with 88 extra-base hits, four shy of the franchise record set by Jimmie Foxx in 1938 . . . The Sox clinched a postseason berth for the 16th time in franchise history. They have reached the postseason eight times in the last 19 seasons, starting with 1986 . . . Ramirez's two-run blast was his 43d homer, tying him for the fifth-most in a season in Sox history with Ted Williams (1949) and Tony Armas (1984). Ramirez and Ortiz (40 homers) have combined for 83 long balls, the most by a pair of teammates in club history. They broke the record set in '49 by Williams (43) and Vern Stephens (39) . . . Johnny Damon's three-run shot was his 19th homer of the season, a career high . . . Mike Timlin set a career high with his 73d appearance. 

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