Minus power, darkness closing on Red Sox

October 15, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

BOSTON - Of course it was Derek Jeter - the symbol of this current Yankees dynasty - whose Willie Mays-ish backward sprint into short left allowed the gifted and blessed shortstop to snare the final out.

It was the bottom of the ninth. Red Sox Nation, already on its feet inside expectant Fenway, filed out into the increasingly chilly New England air. In silence.

Game over. And the series?

With impish flair and a compact fist pump, Jeter sealed the Yankees' 4-2 win in Game 5 last night, extending New York's lead to a serious 3-2 in this American League Championship Series.

Then there was Nomar Garciaparra. The second-fiddler (to Jeter) of Fenway is caught in a loathsome hitting slump, the kind that makes him an emerging symbol of perhaps another October of Red Sox futility.

Unless, of course, you are among the 25 players inside the Red Sox clubhouse. Cowboy Nation is what they're all about, not Nomar and his prime-time struggles.

Despite the mounting evidence that Garciaparra is headlining a dangerous decline of the Red Sox's league-leading offense at absolutely the worst time, the Red Sox will not yield to the men in pinstripes.

"The thing is, he still has tomorrow. Doesn't matter what bad we had today, we have tomorrow. That's something that can't be taken away from us," Jason Varitek said.

"We beat 'em twice before," he said.

Say what you want. Think what you must. The Red Sox see no reason to throw in the towel just because conventional wisdom suggests they have no shot at winning.

In each of the past six series that went to 3-2, the team that won Game 5 went on to win the series. Not good percentages for the Red Sox, but then again, Boston - back in that fateful autumn of 1986 when it last advanced to the World Series - came back to win the ALCS after being down 3-2. The Red Sox are the last team to do it.

Not that you couldn't hear it all the way up the interstate, the bellowing from the Bronx about the dangers that await the Red Sox. They have to find a way to take down all those imposing Yankees battery mates - not to mention those D-sized batteries favored by the Bleacher Creatures.

Aura and mystique will be conjured up. Ruth and Gehrig. Reggie and Goose. Pettitte and Rivera.

We are all well-versed in this October score. The ghosts of all those great, dead Yankees will be wafting through the stadium tonight. The Yankees return to the Bronx one game up on the Red Sox - those 85-year drought victims now barely treading water in the batter's box.

Yesterday, Derek Lowe registered the loss after experiencing one small but damaging meltdown. That came in the second inning, when the Yankees scored three runs with two outs.

It turned out to be too deep a hole, considering the stuff David Wells was hurling. That only served to hearten the Red Sox, who do not see the overwhelming advantages the Yankees have: home field, pitching experience. Heck, the Red Sox did their best to slap Mariano "Automatic" Rivera around in the eighth a little yesterday.

The disparity between regular season and now is significant where the Red Sox offense is concerned. During the season, Lowe led all of major league baseball in run support. He was bestowed an average of 7.62 runs - more than 8 during his 17 victories.

What's going on with Kevin Millar, who went 0-for-4 yesterday, including a double play in the fourth? Millar is batting .158 in this series. Bill Mueller, the AL batting champ, was also hitless yesterday, dropping his series average to 118. Designated hitter David Ortiz broke out with two hard hits yesterday, but he's hitting .188.

Still, no one seems to characterize the Red Sox's offensive futility more than Garciaparra.

In the eighth last night, with the Yankees ahead 4-1, Garciaparra finally got his first RBI of the postseason. Todd Walker had drilled a triple off Rivera that was almost a homer, and it was all set up for Garciaparra to walk into a spotlight in which he seems to be shrinking.

Garciaparra drove in Walker, but the RBI came on a groundout to first. His postseason woes were only moderately offset by a pair of walks, leaving Red Sox Nation to do nothing except analyze Garciaparra's mechanics and mind-set like it's the latest Chappaquiddick.

"Sometimes, a hitter can try and do too much," Red Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson said.

"It's human nature for him to be down. He's fighting to get a hit. Once he does get a couple, it's a new day. He's a two-time batting champion. I don't see why he can't come back tomorrow," Jackson said.

Jackson said Garciaparra appears to be hitting the ball behind his usual location. He's not getting his hands out in front, a result of hitters' habits of staying back on pitches, waiting to see the ball longer.

Garciaparra may or may not be listening to his coaches. He certainly claims to be ignorant of the legions of amateur swing analysts attempting to coax him to keep his front foot planted or his head down.

"I don't listen to anything. I'm harder on myself than anybody," Garciaparra said.

"It's not for a lack of effort from everyone. Everyone's trying to pick each other up. Sometimes they find the hole, sometimes they don't. If we keep winning, that's all I care about. Go out there and battle. You have an idea what you're going to do out there," he said.

"I sense Nomar's a guy that everyone on this team is pulling for," Varitek said.

The impish Jeter was the last one seen under the lights of Fenway, scampering toward home with the ball in his glove. But the Red Sox remain confident. They have a game today. It is their tomorrow. They say Nomar and the crew could break out any day now. Well, today's the day.

ALCS by the numbers

10-2 David Wells' postseason record.

1 RBIs for Nomar Garciaparra this postseason.

29 Mariano Rivera's postseason saves.

6.43 Derek Lowe's ERA this series.

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