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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

In the end, they discover yet another way to come up empty

NEW YORK -- It's true. The Red Sox really are put on this earth to torture and test the faith of their fans.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any more hideous, the Sox did it again last night. With a bad moon risin' over the Bronx, they blew a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the 13th when the Yankees had two outs and no one on base. Three straight hits by Ruben Sierra, Miguel Cairo, and ex-Sox John Flaherty made a loser of journeyman Curtis Leskanic.

It looked as if Terry Francona's Lost Boys might leave town with a desperately needed victory when Manny Ramirez hit his second homer of the night to give Boston a 4-3 lead in the top of the 13th . . . But no. These are the Red Sox. This is Boston vs. New York. You can chant "Yankees Suck" all you want. At the end of the day, New York answers with "1918" and the Yankees win in the clutch.

It truly was one of the best regular-season games in the century-old history of this lopsided rivalry -- a night when Derek Jeter saved the game, catching a two-out popup, then messing up his handsome face with a headfirst dive into the third row of box seats. It made for an interesting juxtaposition because in the other dugout, Nomar Garciaparra (Achilles') was unable to contribute, having told his manager before the game that he was too sore to play. The Sox used 17 players in all. Nomar and Doug Mirabelli were the only non-pitchers who did not play.

"He was trying his [butt] off to be available," Francona said, explaining why Nomar sat.

"There was a time I thought I might get in," said Garciaparra. "From the ninth inning on, I was getting loose, trying to get ready."

Francona never called Nomar's number. But he did just about everything else, including a five-man infield that at times featured a lefthanded second baseman (David McCarty). The trick worked as the Sox got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the 12th.

McCarty, who changed gloves five times during the inning, said, "This was one of those games you're going to remember when you're done playing."

And there is so much to remember. It was a night when the Sox failed to score with the bases loaded and no outs in the 11th. It was a night when they failed to score with runners on first and third and one out in the 12th. It was a night when Kevin Millar played first base, third base, and right field in that same inning.

Oh, and did we mention Leskanic? A little-known righthander at the end of the Sox bullpen, he made some of the most pressure-packed pitches of the season before coughing up three straight hits and the ballgame in the midnight hour. If we could interject another positive note, the Red Sox failed to commit an error for the first time since last Friday.

"This team showed a lot of character," said McCarty. "To come in and lose the first two games the way we did, then to come back tonight and play great defense says a lot about the character of the team. That was a great ballgame."

"It was one of the best-played games I've ever seen," said Sox starter Pedro Martinez, who did his job, allowing three runs over seven innings.

Pedro did something else. He threw at Gary Sheffield in the first inning, drilling the Yankees outfielder in the back. Yankees manager Joe Torre was not happy with the way the umpires handled the situation and this is the kind of stuff that gives the Yankees great satisfaction when they come back to beat the Red Sox again and again. Since Pedro came to Boston in 1998, the Red Sox are 12-17 when he starts against the Yankees (including postseason).

The loss dropped the Sox a whopping 8 1/2 games behind New York, nine in the loss column. Depressing. After the way Boston played the Yankees last year, and the flurry of offseason maneuvers between these teams, who would have guessed that the Yankees would have effectively clinched the division by July 2? They have. Boston's best bet is another one of those nifty, champagne-drenched wild-card celebrations in late September or early October.

In the meantime, the Sox are safe in their hotel in Atlanta by now -- far away from the horrors of the Bronx. The Lost Boys will try to get back on track this weekend against the now-mediocre Braves.

Nomar said he'll be ready to play tonight.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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