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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

It's another sight for sore eyes

Thirty-six years ago, when the Democrats went to Chicago, protesters chanted, "The Whole World is Watching! The Whole World is Watching!"

That's what if feels like at Fenway Park this weekend. The Yankees are in town, CNN broadcast live from the right-field roof yesterday afternoon, and games today and tomorrow will be beamed across the land. There's even a Nixon in right field -- a guy who just signed on for Three More Years.

And with the eyes of Baseball America focused on Fenway, the Red Sox last night again demonstrated why they always finish second to the Yankees. In another one of those rip-your-heart-out games (anyone remember July 1 in New York?), the Sox came back from a 7-4 deficit on the strength of three Kevin Millar homers only to lose it in the ninth on an RBI single by (gulp) Alex Rodriguez.

The final score was 8-7 as the Red Sox fell a season-low 9 1/2 games behind the Bronx Bombers. Which means you can chant "Yankees suck" until Election Day, but the Sox are going to finish second to the Yankees for the record seventh consecutive season.

The 2004 Red Sox deserve nothing better. They have played sub-.500 baseball (37-38) for 12 weeks. They can talk about bad breaks (there were plenty), how hard they played last night (they did), and injuries all they want, but the idea of a team with this talent, and payroll, playing under .500 for three months is totally unacceptable.

"We're just trying so desperately to win a game we're supposed to, or win a game we're not supposed to, or just win a game," said frustrated manager-under-siege Terry Francona. "It's a tough loss, but I haven't lost sight of where we are. I won't get down. I understand what my job is here. If these players see me dragging, that's not fair. That won't happen."

Curt Schilling, brilliant all year, coughed up a 4-1 lead and gave up 10 hits and seven earned runs en route to being chased in the Yankees' five-run sixth.

"They all hurt," said the ace. "But this game falls right on top of me. This was a game we should have won. My ineptness and their good at-bats in those two innings [fifth and sixth] were the game in my mind. You're going to get beat when you do things like that. That's why they're at where they're at."

The Sox were hoping to erase the pain of their epic loss in New York three weeks ago, but things got off to a bad start thanks to Derek Jeter. The Yankee shortstop was not in Joe Torre's original starting lineup. Jeter suffered a non-displaced fracture of the fifth metacarpal bone on his right hand when he was hit by a pitch by Tampa Bay's Victor Zambrano Tuesday. Torre said he'd watch Jeter take batting practice before making a final decision. Naturally, Jeter was first in the cage, ripped the ball all over Fenway, and told Torre, "put me in coach, I'm ready to play. Today."

It was almost as if the Yankees staged it just to make the Sox look bad by comparison. The pregame Jeter drama kindled the memory of July 1, when Jeter broke his face diving into the stands while Nomar Garciaparra took the night off to rest his sore Achilles' in the Yankees' 13-inning win.

Jeter did little at the plate last night (0 for 5). He made the second out of the game just before Gary Sheffield -- who never gets cheated on a swing -- worked the count to 2 and 2, then drilled a low curveball off the bottom of the Coke bottles atop the Green Monster. It was Sheffield's 20th homer and the 399th of his career, tying him with Al Kaline for 38th place on the all-time list. Sheffield would be back in the ninth for the final dagger.

Led by Cowboy Up posterboys Trot Nixon, Bill Mueller, and Millar, the Sox roared back with four runs to stake Schilling to what looked like an insurmountable 4-1 lead. Nixon, Mueller and Miller had career years in 2003. Spring forecasters predicted it would be difficult for them to repeat their performances and sure enough, they've struggled mightily while Sox fans sing "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?"

Boston's three-run lead was erased when the Yankees chased Schilling in the sixth. The lowlight of the inning was Ruben Sierra's high-chop single to first baseman Millar, which scored a run and made Millar look confused. He almost could have tagged Sierra and he almost could have thrown home, but he did neither. Fans booed. Kenny Lofton followed with a double to right and that was it for Schilling.

Then Francona did what He Who Must Not Be Named wouldn't do: he summoned Mike Timlin. Naturally, Timlin yielded a two-run double to right by Bernie Williams on a 1-and-2 pitch and the Sox were behind.

Of course, the Sox came back to tie it. Millar's third homer of the night made it 7-7 in the eighth, but the Sox should have scored more runs (two strikeouts killed a second-and-third, one-out rally) and LOBs came back to haunt them when Sheffield doubled and scored on a single by Rodriguez in the ninth. Mariano Rivera came on for the usual 1-2-3.

Millar, one of the few players who's ever been booed in the middle of a three-homer game, said, "We're just a few games behind where we were last year and that's what people got to understand and the Sox will be all right. The main thing is to make the playoffs. We're right there in the wild-card hunt. I'll take my chances with our team in a five-game series with Schilling and Pedro. The big thing is making the playoffs and advancing to the World Series and ending this thing."

Schilling came to Boston to win a World Series. He hailed the gallant work of his teammates and said if the Sox play like that the rest of the year they'll go to the World Series. Truly, the wild card is very much within the grasp of the 2004 Red Sox.

But they have been beaten in too many games like last night's game. It's always something with these guys. And this weekend the entire country is getting a look at what we've been watching all season long.

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

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