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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Francona's position: Loyalty is first

Kevin Millar is Terry Francona's first baseman.

It doesn't matter if John Olerud goes 10 for 10 in a doubleheader. It doesn't matter if Olerud reminds us of George Scott and Vic Power around the bag. It doesn't matter if Millar goes 0 for 4 while Olerud comes into the game and cracks a double to break a Red Sox scoring drought. It doesn't matter if Olerud somehow gets Doug Mientkiewicz to give The Ball back.

Millar is Francona's first baseman.

The Whiner Liners can paint Millar as a first cousin of Chris Canty or Mark Blount. The folks in the stands can shower boos on Millar's blond head when his name is announced by Carl Beane. People at the local store can yell, ''Put Olerud in the lineup!" when the manager goes shopping.

Millar is Francona's first baseman.

''I know it's a hot topic, or a point of focus," said Francona after posting his starting lineup (with Millar playing first, batting sixth) before last night's win over the Orioles. ''When somebody's yelling at me through the [expletive] window when I'm trying to get a pair of glasses, it's a [expletive] topic."

It's a topic because Millar is off to an abysmal start. Just like last year. And a replacement has emerged -- one who looks much better with the mitt around first base. Just like last year. And the replacement is a two-time All Star who once hit .363 in a full big league season. And the replacement had five hits in his first two starts with the Sox.

Given that the Orioles had a righthander starter last night and given that Olerud had five hits in his two starts, and given that Millar was still stuck on two homers, one might have expected to see Olerud in Francona's lineup.

No. This is Tito, the benevolent dictator who values loyalty above all else.

''I don't believe just because a guy got a couple of hits that you sit your first baseman down," said the manager. ''This is a long haul and sometimes it takes some patience for it to work. I can't forget what Millar has done for us and how important he is to our ball club. What he did for us in the second half was pretty damn good."

That all sounded a little hollow when Millar went hitless last night, dropping to .237. Meanwhile, Olerud entered the game in the early innings and delivered a clutch double that triggered a four-run rally in the fifth. He's batting .429 (6 for 14).

Doesn't matter. The manager is sticking with Millar.

In the stardust season of 2004, Millar demonstrated a split personality. Bad Kevin hit .269 with 5 homers and 25 RBIs through July 19. Over the final 65 games, Good Kevin hit .336 with 13 homers and 49 RBIs. Good Kevin slugged at a .602 clip and registered an on-base percentage of .429 in the final two-plus months.

And that is what he's waiting for now.

''Some players get off to a rough start," said Millar, sounding unusually serious and concerned about his plight. ''I wish I was a fast starter. But you look around at Mike Lowell and Eric Chavez and Vernon Wells. They're all starting slow. Do you give up on those players? If there's no track record, maybe you would."

OK, Kev. Why should Tito stick with you?

''Because we're like a machine in here and practically everybody in here make us the same machine that's been here since 2003 and the same machine that won the World Series. We're in May, not September. We're just seven weeks into the season."

But what about Olerud?

''I've been a fan of John Olerud since college," said Millar. ''I wasn't going to sit behind Doug Mientkiewicz. I'll sit behind John Olerud. There's a track record there. Last year, I didn't think that [Mientkiewicz] was an upgrade."

Ever-professional, almost pulseless, Olerud is not going to be issuing any ''play me or trade me" demands. The man under the helmet said, ''I just come in and check the [lineup] board. I just got here. I've been fortunate to be swinging the bat well, but I have a different role here than I had in the past. I'm just trying to get myself prepared and be ready when they need me to play."

Both of them were in the lineup by the third inning. Manny Ramirez was given the night off (another Titoism that infuriates the fandom). A half-inning after Johnny Damon crashed into the bullpen fence chasing a Jay Gibbons triple, Olerud replaced Damon in the lineup. Millar moved to left as Jay Payton (starting in place of Manny) moved to center.

Two innings later, Olerud broke up Daniel Cabrera's shut out bid with a prototype laser double to left-center.

Millar, meanwhile, did nothing. He grounded to third in the second. He heard some boos after a weak strikeout ended the fourth. He grounded to first in the sixth, then killed a rally with a double play grounder to end the seventh. More boos.

''I'll take my lumps and get out of this thing," said Millar. ''Tomorrow might be the day."

''There's no right or wrong here. There's no 'who's better?' From Day One I've given everything I have to the Red Sox. None of this is for lack of effort. Ever. And there are other things you can bring to a team beside what shows up on the back of a baseball card. It's nice to have people backing you when things are not going so well."

People like Terry Francona.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com

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