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ON BASEBALL

In this race, the also-rans must be beaten

The six games pop out of the schedule in super bold-face type. Yankees here for three this weekend. Yankees there for three next weekend. Athens vs. Sparta, the Jedi vs. the Evil Empire and all that. The showdown for the season. Or maybe not.

Odds are, the Red Sox' fate in the AL East will be decided by the other 24 games, specifically those such as last night's 12-9 danse macabre against tapped-out teams like the Blue Jays, who've been spiraling slowly out of sight but still can pack a nasty punch.

There are seven apiece with Baltimore and Tampa Bay and another three with Cleveland. If the Sox lose half a dozen of them, it won't matter what they do against New York. And if they win 20 of them, it won't matter, either.

"We win five out of six the rest of the way, we're in the playoffs, no doubt," second baseman Todd Walker said after he and his mates ended up on the wrong end of a 21-run, 31-hit, 3-hour-38-minute seesaw ride at Fenway Park.

Emotionally and mathematically, the Yankee games have twice as much significance as the others, since each victory deals a loss to the other side. But over most seasons, the ledger roughly balances.

In three of the last five years, the head-to-head difference between Boston and New York has been one or two games. After this year's first 13 meetings, it's one game in the Empire's favor (7-6). Unless the Sox sweep the rest (or are swept), the next two weekends won't decide the race.

Fact is, once you get beyond the psychodrama, the Sox-Yankees matchup usually has minimal bearing on the AL East title. Last year, Boston was 9-10 in the series and lost the division by 10 1/2 games. In 1998, when their string of also-ran seasons began, the Sox were 5-7 in the series and 22 games back at the end.

The reason the town team is five games behind New York is that the Yankees are 31-21 in divisional play and the Sox are 28-27. Most notably, the Yankees are 8-4 against Baltimore, the Sox 5-7. Of such relative imbalances are titles won and lost.

"Good teams beat the teams they are supposed to beat," said first baseman Kevin Millar, who did his damnedest last night with three hits and a couple of RBIs, including an inside-the-park homer in the ninth. "That's why New York has been so successful through the years."

If the Red Sox are truly a postseason team, they will fatten up on the two dozen games with their non-pinstriped rivals, specifically the Orioles, Indians, and Devil Rays, who going into last night were a combined 50 games below .500 and 59 1/2 games back.

These are ball clubs that have been out of the hunt for weeks, that have stumbled so often that defeat has lost its sting, that are so far behind that victory barely registers. These are ball clubs you have to beat. If the Sox fall short yet again, odds are it won't be the losses to New York that will haunt the faithful during the winter. It'll be the nine games dropped to Toronto, the seven to Baltimore, the four to Tampa Bay, and any other missed chances yet to come.

If you beat the teams you're supposed to beat, the rest has a way of taking care of itself.

"You can pick up a game on somebody without even playing head-to-head," observed Millar. "We picked up two on the Yankees last week when we beat Seattle while they were losing two to Baltimore."

Which is why this two-step with Toronto loomed especially large. While the Yankees were getting hammered, 13-2, at home by division-leading Chicago, the Red Sox were playing a team they should beat.

The Sox had taken five in a row, including that rousing sweep of Seattle. They were crushing the ball again (41 runs in five games), playing arguably their best defense of the season, getting quality starts from their pitchers. They were performing on a clear and balmy night before another full house.

Toronto had lost three in a row at home to Oakland (by an aggregate 36-13) and six of its last nine. And yet this mini-series figured to be a landmine. Sixteen games back or not, the Jays presented the same ornithological problems for the Sox that the Orioles did. Should beat 'em, don't beat 'em. At least not as often as they should.

Last night, down, 7-1, in the fourth, Boston figured to lose. Then, after drawing even in the seventh, the Sox looked as if they'd win. Then, down by five in the eighth, they looked like losers again. Until Manny Ramirez stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and a tie game one swing away -- and struck out.

"I'd like to go back and start it all over, from the very beginning," mused outfielder Gabe Kapler.

Tonight, the Sox get another shot against Roy Halladay, the league's pitcher-of-the-moment, who's 17-5 overall and 2-0 against his hosts. Suddenly, nobody's talking about the weekend.

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