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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

A chance not handled cleanly

NEW YORK -- In a perfect world, the Red Sox would have beaten the Yankees again. They would have whupped 'em for a fifth straight time, providing symmetrical spring revenge for the five-game, season-ending humiliation at Fenway last August. They would have broken the Yankees' spirit.

And then, just to top off a perfect Boston sports weekend, the Patriots would have selected Texas Tech offensive lineman Manny Ramirez in the NFL draft -- which no doubt would have prompted baseball Manny to scratch his head and say, "It is what it is."

But the world is not perfect and neither are the Red Sox, and so citizens of the Nation will have to swallow yesterday's 3-1 loss to the Bronx Bombers.

Too bad. For in the words of the late, great Barry White, when it comes to beating up on the Yankees . . . it's just never enough.

"It's baseball," said first baseman and realist Kevin Youkilis. "They pitched better than us today. You've got to tip your cap to them and go out tomorrow and try to win the series."

Folks were certainly reeling here in the Apple yesterday morning. A seven-game losing streak and a last-place team with a $195 million payroll are ample cause for embarrassment and alarm.

Greedy Sox fans wanted more; 2004 was historic and will never go away, but the Red Sox have finished behind the Yankees in 11 consecutive seasons. In case you forgot, some bad stuff happened here in 2003 (ask yesterday's losing pitcher, Tim Wakefield) and there were a few other indignities suffered at the hands of New York during the 20th century. Which is why the Sox can never beat these guys enough times.

Three hours before yesterday's game, Yankee gods were circling the wagons in the inner sanctum. A stroll into the Yankee clubhouse almost always guarantees at least one legend sighting, and early yesterday Yogi Berra stood outside Joe Torre's office chatting with Don Mattingly, while Reggie Jackson sat in a chair and spoke with Derek Jeter.

Jeter's locker is just a few feet away from the empty stall where captain Thurman Munson dressed before his fatal plane crash in 1979. Munson played with Reggie. Reggie played with Roy White, who played with Whitey Ford, who played with Yogi, who played with Joe DiMaggio, who played with Lou Gehrig, who played with the Babe. You get the picture.

The ever-professional Torre answered all the uncomfortable questions before the victory. He'd been at the park late Friday night, meeting with his coaches, and he no doubt was aware the back page of the Post had his photo next to the headline: "LINE OF FIRE."

"Hey, I've got a job to do," said the manager. "I certainly don't go out there managing to try and keep my job . . . I'm not comfortable with the fact that we're losing. I can't concern myself with what might happen . . . We need to win a ballgame to try to get the swagger back in our game. This is a tough time we're going through."

Indeed. Throughout the Yankee family and fandom it is believed that heads would have rolled by now if not for the failing health of owner George Steinbrenner.

So there was some urgency in the Bronx, and when Julio Lugo felled starter Jeff Karstens with a bullet off the leg on the first pitch of the game (Karstens lasted one more batter), the panic was palpable. Then Kei Igawa did his Ernie Shore imitation (look it up) and righted the Yankee universe for a few hours.

"We had a couple of chances and didn't do anything," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "We needed to get a big hit and we couldn't get it."

Boston couldn't do much with Igawa, or with closer Mariano Rivera, who finally picked up his first save of the season. The Yankees' first save of the season.

When Youkilis was asked if this was as good as Rivera has looked this year, he said, "Come on. The guy throws 94-mile-an-hour cutters on the black. And you guys are worried about him?"

They are worried about everything in New York right now. Sweet. That's why they needed this one more than the Red Sox. And so Mssrs. Donnelly, Lugo, Drew, Okajima, and Matsuzaka now know that the Sox don't necessarily win every game against this team from New York.

Really now. You didn't think the Sox were going to beat the Yanks 18 straight times this year, did you?

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist.

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