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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

No room for waiting

Sox feeling the heat to deliver this year

ATLANTA -- It's the last stop before the games count, and these final baseball exhibitions are being played in the shadow of Grady Memorial Hospital. Just thought you'd want to know.

The Red Sox and Braves last night played the first of two spring training games in the ballpark where the great Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch eight years ago. A handful of fans gathered Friday night, most of them citizens of the Nation, and they were pretty happy when Manny Ramirez launched a three-run shot into the left-field seats in the first.

Starting tomorrow night, the games will count and we'll see how these Red Sox players perform. There is considerable pressure in the wake of the Grady Memorial Finish in the American League Championship Series, which was followed by the nuclear winter of 2003-04.

How ridiculous has it gotten, this quest to overtake the Yankees in 2004? Sox owner John Henry stayed up all night to watch the Yankees play those regular-season games in Japan this week. The games started at 5 a.m. EST, and the low-talkin' Sox owner did not go to sleep until he knew the outcome.

The Sox say they're prepared for the World Series-or-bust expectations of 2004. Everyone knows it's the last time we'll see this group together. (In case you've been in Guam, Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek, and David Ortiz are all in the final year of their contracts, and the Sox are on record saying it's impossible to keep them all.) Certainly, the Red Sox are going to be competitive for the next few years, but we know, and they know, that this is their best shot to win it all. Four of five Globe baseball guys are picking the Sox to win it all. How's that for unbridled optimism?

So, Kevin Millar, here's the question: Do you have to win the World Series this year or admit that the season is a failure?

"Yes," he answered. "We've got to win the World Series this year. I feel that this team right here is as good as you can get. I think that's what you play for. You play to win a World Series, and that's what I play for. The group of guys we've got here like that pressure or they probably wouldn't be on this team."

Did failing to beat the Yankees in the ALCS make the 2003 season a failure?

"Yes, for a long time," said Varitek, one of the Fab Five who could be elsewhere next season. "Until they came out and made that video of the good things that happened last year, I did think of it as a failure."

"This year will be a failure if we do not win the World Series," added Johnny "Jesus Alou" Damon. "I think everyone in Boston knows that the ownership put together a good team and kept together a good team, and the fans deserve to expect to win the World Series. I didn't come here just to be on a winning team."

It's good to hear the fellows on board with this thinking, but we all know injuries can derail any pennant express and it's already clear the Sox aren't going to go through another injury-free season. Garciaparra and Trot Nixon will start the season on the shelf.

"This team has a lot of good things, but we've got to face some adversity right away without some key guys," said Varitek. "And how we shine through that and deal with that is going to be a big part."

"I think we've got everything we need," said Millar. "But we've got to stay injury-free."

The pitching looks pretty darn good. Pedro Martinez was either unwilling or unable to cut loose in Florida, but the Sox expect him to be his old Cy self in Baltimore even if the weather's bad tomorrow night (it will be). Meanwhile, everyone in the Nation awaits the arrival of Keith Foulke in the eighth or ninth inning at Camden Yards. Foulke apparently was kidnapped by aliens during spring training, and the imposter wearing his uniform gave up 15 hits and three walks while compiling a 13.50 ERA in seven spring games.

Like Curt Schilling, Foulke was brought here to win the World Series.

"This isn't the first go-around at it," said Varitek. "I was under the same impression last year, too. I want to win a championship, and there's no better team than now. I feel that way every year. Why change now?"

General manager Theo Epstein said, "I agree that our goal is to win the World Series, but I don't agree that this team is built only to win it this year and never again in the future. We're going to be very competitive. We have the resources to be very competitive, and we have a plan to be competitive."

Theo has to say that, but we all know the Sox have to win it this year or their fans will be checking into the emergency room at Grady Memorial. It's an extraordinary way to start a season, and the season starts tomorrow night.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist.

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