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Payton's place reserved

PHOENIX -- Red Sox outfielders are a colorful lot. You've got Manny Ramirez, the savant slugger, who was carrying the World Series MVP trophy when we last saw him in October. Then there's Johnny Damon, who wants to be a movie star and gives a whole new meaning to the term "idiot." Trot Nixon is a quiet Yankee killer who smears pine tar on his helmet and rips Alex Rodriguez.

And then there's Jay Payton, who has somehow remained under the radar in a clubhouse where every word and motion is monitored by a horde of bloodthirsty reporters.

Nobody says much about Payton, which is odd considering his resume and potential impact in Boston's first title defense in 86 years.

He's a veteran of five full major league seasons who has hit 28 home runs in a season (Colorado, 2003), batted .333 with a three-run homer off Mariano Rivera in the 2000 World Series, and has played more than 133 games four times. He also hit a homer off Pedro Martinez in Fenway Park when he was with the Mets in 2000. Not bad for a "fourth outfielder."

Payton will start for the Red Sox in right field at Yankee Stadium tomorrow night because Randy Johnson is pitching and the Sox don't want the lefthanded-hitting Nixon to start the season with a four-punchout game. A veteran of the Mets, Rockies, and Padres, Payton is 8 for 37 (.216) lifetime against the Big Unit with a homer, six RBIs, and eight strikeouts.

"You know what you're getting when you face Randy Johnson," Payton said before yesterday's spring finale against the Diamondbacks at the BOB. "He'll throw 94-95 up and away or he'll throw the 89-90-mile-an-hour cutter/slider down and in. He's basically a two-pitch guy, but those pitches are hard, so you've got to be ready for it."

Payton batted .375 this spring with one homer and six RBIs. He missed almost a week after getting hit in the right wrist by a 94-m.p.h. Daniel Cabrera fastball, but played the last three games of the exhibition season and says he's at full strength. He was 0 for 2 and scored a run yesterday in the Sox' 10-3 loss to the Diamondbacks. Thursday night he was at the center of a statistical oddity when he made all three outs of the first inning. He flied to right to start the game, then lined into a double play after eight consecutive batters reached base against Arizona's Russ Ortiz.

Theo Epstein acquired Payton from the Padres along with Ramon Vazquez and pitcher David Pauley in a December deal that sent forever popular Dave Roberts (Boston's new Bernie Carbo) to San Diego. This was shortly after Gabe Kapler left for Japan. Payton is expected to fill both roles, but don't count on him running like Roberts. He's never stolen more than seven bases in a big league season.

"We're hoping he brings an offensive presence," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "He'll play mostly against lefthanders. If he's playing more, that means something is wrong, which is not to say he won't help us. He can put a charge into the ball. He can spell every outfielder. I think he'll end up being a pretty productive player. He'll basically do what Gabe did. Combine Gabe and Roberts almost. If a pitcher makes a mistake, he's going to hit a home run."

Kapler and Roberts were fan favorites. They were also respected in the clubhouse and in the front office. But the Sox are being run like the Patriots these days, and the acquisition of Payton is downright Belichickian. Payton will be a free agent at the end of the season.

"Of course I want to be an everyday player," said the 32-year-old outfielder. "I still think I'm capable. Last year was a tough year (.260, 8 HRs, 55 RBIs), but I made some adjustments in the offseason. But here I'm not going to get to play every day so I just have to wait my turn and make the most of my at-bats. Hopefully set myself up to put myself in a position, maybe next year, to be an everyday player again."

Payton graduated from high school in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1991, then teamed with Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek at Georgia Tech. He roomed with Nomar for three years (can't you just see Nomie hanging shirts in his closet and saying, "Touch my stuff and I'll kill you"?) and batted cleanup, behind Garciaparra (leadoff) and Varitek (third). Small wonder Payton led the country with 102 RBIs in 1994.

"They were the best," remembered Payton. "I was happy because there were 30 scouts at all of our games because of those two guys. It worked out good for me."

Payton had two major surgeries on his (right) throwing elbow while working his way up the minors, and made his major league debut with the Mets in 1998. Shoulder surgery set him back in 1999, but he finished third in Rookie of the Year balloting in 2000 and has a .285 career average.

Now he's a fourth outfielder for the world champion Boston Red Sox. Overqualified. An upgrade. And probably only here for a year.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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