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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Sweep dreams with Yankees in town

The Red Sox, mugged by the Yankees in a pivotal series in the Bronx last weekend, emerged declaring their injuries were merely flesh wounds.

Those wounds have barely had time to heal. Five days later, here come the Yankees again, ready to inflict more pinstripe pain.

New York swaggers in tonight for a three-game series that will settle, once and for all, whether the Red Sox still have a chance at the AL East crown.

The baseball gods were hardly cooperative in adding to the storyline. Had the Yankees blundered their day game against Tampa Bay and Boston dispatched of those irritating Orioles, the locals would have pulled within 2 1/2 games, and would have been facing the enticing possibility of leapfrogging the Yankees with a three-game sweep.

Instead, New York cruised to a 7-3 victory and Derek Lowe faltered again in a 9-7 Sox loss. The deficit against the Yankees is an almost insurmountable 4 1/2 games, and the only chance the local nine have to keep their division dreams alive is to take all three this weekend. Win two out of three and the Sox only pick up one measly game, and that's simply not enough as the finish line to the regular season looms.

You can be sure Yankees fans are guffawing at the notion of a potential Red Sox sweep. Why would anyone think the Red Sox are capable of such domination after last weekend, when they were mauled by a combined 25-5 score in the final two games?

True to form, the boys on Yawkey Way continue to exhibit an uncanny ability to put the past behind them, no matter how gruesome the results.

"What good does it do to look back?" Sox closer Keith Foulke asked. "It doesn't help us. The thing I love about this team is no matter how bad things have gotten, nobody was in here saying, `Oh God, we'll never make the playoffs' or, `Oh God, we'll never catch the Yankees.' "

Foulke, who blew back-to-back saves Tuesday and Wednesday night, said he "wasn't sure it mattered" if his team caught New York.

"Sure, the T-shirts look cooler with `Division Champs' on it, but there are plenty of teams that have won the World Series as wild-card teams," he said.

What Foulke failed to mention is if Boston ends up as the wild card, the possibility looms of a series with Minnesota, which boasts the probable Cy Young winner in Johan Santana (19-6, 2.65 ERA), and the cavernous Metrodome, where Games 1, 2, and (if necessary) 5 would be played. Don't forget, people. Your beloved team is a sparkling 53-25 at home, which is why you want a Game 5 in your own little bandbox.

That's why last night's loss stung, with Lowe knocked out in five innings (allowing 9 hits and 4 earned runs), and his relief corps (yes, that was Byung Hyun Kim) unable to stem the bleeding.

"We wanted this game," Kevin Millar said afterward. "But now we move on."

Is 4 1/2 games too much to make up?

"I can't predict the future," Millar replied. "[The Yankees] could go 0-10 in their next 10 games."

The last stab at home field begins tonight with Pedro Martinez. Yankees fans refuse to let him forget last year's American League Championship Series, when he tossed aside senior citizen Don Zimmer as the Yankees coach charged him during a now legendary melee.

"Because of what happened last year, they want to compare him to some WWF guy," said David Ortiz. "Pedro doesn't want to fight. Petey wouldn't hurt a mosquito. People have gotten the wrong idea about him.

"I think he's disappointed and a little hurt by it. I'm telling you, man. It was bad in New York [last weekend]. He's trying to do his conditioning work and these guys are shouting at him, `Pedro, I want to whup your ass.' There were guys out there ready to jump the fence and fight him."

Pedro's friends in the clubhouse say he is ticked off at constant questions regarding his velocity, his effectiveness, and his ability to still be the No. 1 ace on this staff, particularly in the wake of a bad outing last weekend in Gotham City (8 runs, 3 homers). He can silence those critics by silencing the Yankees. In doing so, he must outpitch Mike Mussina, who has struggled this season (12-9, 4.60 ERA) but seems to reserve his best stuff for Boston.

The bandages are off. The wounds are exposed. It's now or never for the Red Sox to inflict some pain of their own.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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