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ON BASEBALL

Final act features a fight to finish

BALTIMORE -- One week left, a dead heat. Angioplasty specialists are on alert.

''This season has been absolutely operatic," Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino said before the confluence of yesterday's 7-4 Yankee loss to the Blue Jays in the Bronx and 4-3 Red Sox win over the Orioles left the ancient rivals in a tie for the American League East lead, with eight games left.

''We've got to wait for the final scene of the final act," said Lucchino, who flew down for the day with majority owner John W. Henry, who kept up with the Yankees game on the latest handheld technological doodad. ''It's pretty dramatic, pretty exciting. I prefer a little less excitement."

The last three games, of course, will be close encounters of the most intense kind, a head-to-head smackdown between the Sox and Yankees, which is shaping up to be a winner-take-all proposition, with the loser possibly missing the playoffs altogether because of the surging Cleveland Indians.

''This year, the playoffs started two weeks early, that's the biggest difference, right?" said Henry, even before Camden Yards was transformed into Fenway on the Chesapeake by thousands of red-clad Sox fans.

Henry empathized with David Ortiz's lament that the Sox had not put away the Yankees when they had the chance, when the Bombers were playing as badly as they have in the last decade.

''If we had been as healthy this year as last year, I would [be frustrated]," Henry said. ''All teams have injuries, but when you lose the guy at the front of your rotation [Curt Schilling] and the back-of-your-rotation closer [Keith Foulke], it's not easy this day and age to fill those spots. Imagine if the Yankees lost [Randy] Johnson and [Mariano] Rivera or they had 6 ERAs.

''So, I can't be totally unhappy with having to fight to the finish. I was probably overly happy two weeks ago when we weren't."

By his own admission, Henry has kept a lower profile this season. It was important to be out front, he said, when the club was first sold, to integrate himself in a community inclined to look upon the new guys as carpetbaggers of the worst kind.

Winning a World Series last year, not to mention all the charitable ties the Sox forged with the community, went a long way toward transforming that image.

''Larry and Theo [Epstein] know what they're doing," he said. ''There's no reason for me to be that visible."

Henry, who spoke briefly with Terry Francona in the dugout before the game, also offered words of support for the Sox manager. Francona, who is trying to survive with a bullpen short on manpower, has come under fire in recent days for his decision not to rely too heavily on the rookies, Jonathan Papelbon and especially Craig Hansen, who is just three months removed from college.

Francona's admonition that fans expect too much from the kids proved prophetic yesterday when Hansen, who took over for Matt Clement at the start of the seventh, gave up a tying two-run home run to Melvin Mora. The runs were the first allowed by Hansen, making his second appearance for the Sox, as a pro.

''If he gets a couple of outs, they'll want to send him to Cooperstown," Francona had said last week. ''If he gives up a couple of runs, they'll want me to send him back to Double A."

Asked how he evaluates the job done by Francona, Henry said: ''How do I evaluate it? I think some of the decisions we see and tend to disagree with, you [reporters] get a chance to ask him questions, why he does certain things, and generally there's a very good reason. If you remember a year ago at this time, the fans seemed to be very upset with Tito. I don't think they were as upset with him this year as last year."

The team's performance in the postseason, when it won 11 of 14 games en route to a Series title, gave fans a chance to get a better picture of Francona's value to the club. ''And I don't see a difference between this year and last year," Henry said.

The biggest crisis Francona faced in the Sox clubhouse came in late July, when Manny Ramirez -- infuriated because, in his view, Francona had sold him out when he told reporters the left fielder refused to give up a day off in Tampa Bay when the team needed him -- pushed a demand to be traded and refused to play the night before the trading deadline. The issue caused feelings to run high in the Sox' front office, but when asked if Francona had handled the situation properly, Henry said:

''Yeah, look at the net result. Ultimately, you judge players and you judge yourself and your organization on the results. If we don't get the right results this year, if we don't make the playoffs this year, I'll be thinking about my own results. I've always been results-oriented in the business world."

The final results have yet to be tabulated. One week to play, a dead heat.

''It's a great finish for baseball," Lucchino said. ''I have the Red Sox' interest more in mind, but if you step back with a little detachment, I'd say it is a phenomenally exciting time for baseball.

''But I'm less interested in baseball's drama than the Red Sox success."

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