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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Ahead in the count, they know nothing's guaranteed

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The temptation is overwhelming. Go ahead, admit it. You're fighting it as you read this. You are thinking this series is over.

There's only one surefire way to keep the resurgent Boston Red Sox from jumping to that same conclusion as they head back to Boston with a 2-0 first-round division series lead over the Anaheim Angels: Get Bill Belichick in here.

Quick.

New England's resident coaching genius, and certified expert on taking one game at a time (we presume he'll secure the trademark any day now), has conditioned his team to possess tunnel vision. The only important game is the one at hand. The only game that matters is the one in front of you. Don't dwell on the past, or look to the future.

The Patriots, to a man, have guzzled down the potion their leader has concocted for them, and have followed that mantra as religiously as any professional team in recent memory.

Last night, after the Red Sox withstood a strong outing from Bartolo Colon, then battered a vaunted Angels bullpen for an 8-3 victory, the players declared they don't need any help in keeping their focus where it should be.

"It's not over," insisted catcher Jason Varitek, whose two-run homer tied it in the sixth. "We've got to go out there and be ready to play baseball."

You have to realize your local nine speaks from experience. About this time last season, they limped home from Oakland with a 2-0 deficit in tow. Local pundits lamented the impending demise of the team while the Red Sox caught fire, took care of business at home, then put themselves in a position to have a Game 5 decide their fate.

Whenever that happens, anything can happen, and it did. Boston advanced to the ALCS with an improbable, stunning extra-innings victory over Oakland and its ace closer, Keith Foulke.

Funny how things work. Foulke now wears the uniform of the Red Sox, and knocked down the Angels last night in the ninth. He, more than anyone, understands how important it is to close the deal.

"I've been there before, on this side," Foulke said. "You can't rest on that. It's no walk in the park. You just have to go out there and go hard."

Since this series started, the Red Sox have harped on minimizing mistakes, therefore minimizing giving a potent lineup like the Angels a second chance. Last night, aside from a fly ball that landed between Manny Ramirez and Orlando Cabrera when they both pulled up and thought the other had called for it, the miscues were sparse, and ultimately harmless. Cabrera's foul bunt on an 0-and-2 count could have been costly on a different night. Boston must expect that night is just around the corner.

That, says Trot Nixon, who banged home a critical insurance run in the ninth, is what the Red Sox must guard against most of all.

"When you got a guy hanging over the cliff holding on with one hand, you don't want him to get his other hand up there," Nixon explained. "You want to go ahead and stomp on it."

And so the Red Sox will proceed with caution as they prepare for tomorrow's Game 3. They will prepare for slugger Vladimir Guerrero (1 for 8) as if he's tearing the cover off the ball. They will fully expect a recovered Francisco Rodriguez and a fully rested Troy Percival (who needs a closer when you don't ever have the lead?) to resume their reputations as one of the toughest bullpens in the league. They will be wary of that Angel karma that propelled them into this postseason in the first place.

"I know some of those guys over there," said Kevin Millar. "Nothing will be easy. Not with that group. We're going to have to fight them all the way to the end."

The end is near, one way or another. With the right focus, it could end tomorrow at Fenway, where Boston is so strong. With the wrong focus, it could drag on through the weekend.

The local football coach would undoubtedly appreciate it if the Red Sox could wrap this up soon. After all, his team has a game Sunday, too.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist.

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