Back from brink, coast, Red Sox set to move on

Drained by A's comeback, travel, Boston also brings confidence to New York

October 08, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Their best starting pitcher, and one of the finest his sport has ever seen, won't be available for three more days, after the American League Championship Series changes cities. Their bullpen is such a mess that everyone except the bat boy is a candidate to close games.

They're banged up, exhausted from the cross-country travel and emotionally drained after beating back elimination -- not once or twice, but three times - like gladiators in battle. If they had swords, they'd be leaning on them for support.

So why is this team smiling? How can the Boston Red Sox be so full of confidence that even bad haircuts don't lower their self-esteem?

Considering what they've been through just in the past week, let alone a full regular season, perhaps a better question would be: "Why shouldn't they be smiling?"

The New York Yankees will try to provide a few reasons, beginning tonight in Game 1 of the ALCS.

After losing the first two games of the Division Series, the Red Sox ran off three straight wins to eliminate Oakland and rekindle one of sports' most intense and fascinating rivalries. Unable to take their own division, they have every intention of capturing the city's first World Series championship in 85 years.

"It's unbelievable," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said after Monday's 4-3 victory, which wasn't assured until Derek Lowe struck out the last batter with the bases loaded. "We're going in strong to New York."

Well, that depends on a person's interpretation of the word "strong."

Rallying to win on Sunday, the Red Sox returned to Oakland to play the deciding game without a much-needed day off. Shortly after Lowe froze Terrence Long with a slider to set off a wild celebration, they boarded another charter and headed east again.

"We're going to go out there and play our game and not pay attention too much to what they went through," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "We did that two years in a row. You get tired, but the need to go on is probably more motivating than anything else."

Pedro Martinez, the three-time Cy Young winner, threw 230 pitches in two Division Series starts, including 100 in Monday's clincher. The Red Sox can't use him until Game 3.

They probably won't have Johnny Damon, their leadoff hitter, any sooner. Damon suffered a concussion Monday after running head-on into second baseman Damian Jackson while chasing a pop-up in the seventh inning. A CT scan and X-rays on his neck showed no damage, but he spent the night in an Oakland hospital before returning to Boston for a neurological exam.

"We certainly feel like he'll be ready to play before the series is over," said manager Grady Little, who will use Gabe Kapler in center field. "Hopefully he'll be ready to get back in a couple of days."

The Red Sox haven't been in the ALCS since 1999, when the Yankees eliminated them in five games. They disposed of the Cleveland Indians in the Division Series that year by overcoming another 2-0 deficit.

"This team is different," said catcher Jason Varitek. "This team did it because of its tremendous character."

Said Torre: "It didn't surprise me that we're playing Boston, because they're so good."

In past years, the Red Sox were regarded as such a selfish team, their motto was "25 players, 25 cabs," but they do so much bonding now, it should include "one buzz cut." Many of the heads look the same, with stubble replacing hair, in a display of unity that's admirable, if not fashionable.

"It's been amazing," said Kevin Millar. "There's a lot of character and chemistry in this clubhouse."

But it will take more than catchy phrases like "Cowboy Up" to get the Red Sox past New York, which has home-field advantage, a deeper and fresher rotation, and, in Mariano Rivera, the postseason's all-time saves leader.

At least Boston's bullpen stopped playing the victim in the Division Series, collaborating on 9 2/3 scoreless innings after Game 2. But it took some unorthodox methods from Little, including using starters Lowe and Tim Wakefield - who must oppose Mike Mussina tonight.

"The guys believed they weren't as bad as what the public and media were saying of them," Lowe said. "This time of year guys can take it to another level, and we did."

Look where it's brought them.

The headline on the back page of yesterday's New York Daily News screamed "It's On," which could mean only one thing: Yankees-Red Sox.

They met 19 times this season, with New York winning 10. They're forever linked by "The Curse of the Bambino," the one-game playoff in 1978, the animosity between cities and fans. And as if more drama is needed, Roger Clemens returns to Fenway Park as the Game 3 starter.

"This rivalry is better than any rivalry that's going on right now," Torre said. "I was in St. Louis for the Cubs rivalry and it was pretty intense, but I think this one, energy-wise, is bigger."

"It's going to be a lot of fun," Clemens said. "I can guarantee you that."

ALCS glance

Today's game

Boston (Wakefield 11-7, 4.09) at New York (Mussina 17-8, 3.40), 8:18 p.m., FX

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