Sox have pulse, but elimination still a beat away

October 18, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

BOSTON - What's worse? A ruthless, Ruthian sweep out of the American League Championship Series at the hands of the Yankees or another Game 7 heartbreaker when the Red Sox come within five outs of a World Series berth?

Right now, the Red Sox are straddling the middle ground of mediocrity. Last night, during a do-or-die Game 4, they were within three outs of elimination - the likes of which should have prompted the front office to make major changes.

Now they can entertain thoughts of winning one game at a time, all the way back to Yankee Stadium for a rematch of their epic showdown against the Yankees one year ago.

But this is a tall, tall order, especially for the malaise that the Red Sox have offered up instead of their more customary brand of brash, bashing baseball.

See, they had the most potent offense in baseball this season, but for the Red Sox, the ALCS had been just plain offensive.

Maybe that's why they took five hours and two minutes until the cover of darkness had settled upon Fenway Park to prove they really are one of the four teams playing at this late October date.

The Red Sox live, thanks more to attrition in the Yankees bullpen than anything the Red Sox are collectively doing right.

Ask Johnny Damon, who has one hit in 18 at-bats.

Last night, the hairy Idiots were spared the horror of being swept by the Yankees. David Ortiz clocked a two-run homer to post the Red Sox's first ALCS win.

You could call it a glimmer of hope - if the 3-0 abyss the Red Sox had fallen into did not put them in the unenviable position of doing what has never been done before in baseball's postseason.

The Red Sox will need more than a 12th-inning homer off Yankees reliever Paul Quantrill to fully reassert themselves as the team most likely to beat the Yankees this October.

They may not be battling as much bad karma as the franchise has experienced in the past, but they are up against some fairly astounding opposition in the Yankees.

"They have found a way to take it to another level and if we don't do that, we're going to be going home," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said last night.

Last night, it was typical, terrible Red Sox twist of fate that their final hope to beat back the Yankees in this series rested in the hands of a sinker-ball pitcher whose emotional well-being was, well, lower than a sinker.

Derek Lowe was on his way out of Boston before he took the mound for Game 4 last night. He had rejected a three-year deal for $27 million this spring, then fell out of the starting rotation for October.

Just what the Red Sox did not need: An unhappy free-agent-to-be whose job it was to salvage another day for Red Sox Nation.

The Red Sox did not go down with Lowe on the mound, though. He gave up a two-run homer to Alex Rodriguez and was pulled in the sixth.

Later, the Red Sox tied the Yankees, 4-4, in the ninth inning on two walks, a hit and an error. That it was against Yankees' robo-closer Mariano Rivera helped dilute the bitter taste of the 3-0 deficit the Sox had been in at the start of the Game 4.

That they finally found a way to win a game will give Red Sox Nation a glimmer of hope. But it might be a little more of the same, old kind of sadomasochism that so defines this franchise - and its loyal following.

At 3-1, the Sox have only staved off what still seems inevitable.

No baseball team has come all the way back from a 3-0 hole in the postseason. The climb is too hard, too long.

The Red Sox need a new angle, a new mantra. No more Cowboy Up. No more Idiots. It didn't work in 2003, when they came within five outs of their first World Series since '86.

It has not worked so far against the Yankees in this ALCS, not when the Red Sox needed a 12th-inning homer and the idea that Schilling's ankle is about to spontaneously heal.

Last night, manager Terry Francona said Schilling will be available for Game 6, despite the fact that his ankle tendon sheath is snapping across the tendon and causing Schilling problems pushing off the mound.

"He looked good. He will be our pitcher. We just have to find a way to get to a Game 6," Francona said.

This is serious business, all of a sudden.

The Red Sox bobbed and mobbed Ortiz at the plate last night when the clean-up hitter came home in the bottom of the 12th. The party continued in the locker room, but they are a changed team after falling so far behind in this series.

First baseman Kevin Millar came to Boston two years ago. He has tried like the dickens to laugh the Curse of the Bambino out of the clubhouse. He has been a catalyst for change and it was an admirable effort.

Millar launched some catchy marketing campaigns and infused Red Sox Nation with a carefree attitude that belied their brand of bludgeoning offense.

The aim of the Cowboy Up/Idiots was to put a million miles between this group of players and all the horrific stuff that happened in 1946, 1948, 1967, 1975, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1995, 1998 and 1999.

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