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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Stuff of impossible dreams

It's nights like this that make you wonder . . .

. . . maybe this really is the year.

No team, it seems, has higher highs or lower lows than these 2003 Boston Red Sox. Saturday night, they dropped a 13-4 stinker to the Triple A Cleveland Indians, and it was submitted in one Boston newspaper that it might have been the worst-played game in the 103-year history of the franchise.

Then you get last night's game, with gold dust sprinkled from the heavens on the first night of autumn. The Red Sox were down by three runs with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth. This game was over. But very few had left the little ballpark. These people believe. Right down to their bones. And their faith is rewarded.

So what happens? A little second baseman named Todd Walker (this year's Dalton Jones) drills a game-tying homer into the visitors' bullpen. An inning later, David Ortiz (the Dominican Yaz) drops a game-winner into the Monster seats.

And then we get "Dirty Water" on the loudspeakers, chest bumps all around home plate, and pandemonium in the stands. It does not get any better in a regular-season baseball game. Manager Grady Little had no problem calling it the best win of the season. Walker, on the other hand, downplayed it, saying it was "by far the biggest thrill of my life."

The Red Sox beat the Baltimore Orioles, 6-5, in 10 innings, whittling their wild-card magic number to 2. The reeling Seattle Mariners also played extras, but lost at Anaheim in 11 innings, 2-1. The playoffs will start a week from today, in Oakland, and is there a citizen in the Nation who doubts the Sox' ability to beat the A's this time?

"We want to go to the playoffs and win the thing," Walker said in his on-field postgame interview, which was aired to the entire ballpark less than three minutes after Ortiz's walkoff blast.

CEO Larry Lucchino will have none of this talk. Ever-superstitious, he stood in his office yesterday and said, "I hope our people who are making playoff arrangements are doing a good job because I'm not looking into any of it until it's official."

The clinch party (what do you drink at a wild-card clincher -- cold duck or Perrier Joet?) is coming soon to a ballpark near you. The Mariners will die a bloody death probably before they go home for the weekend to finish with the A's.

Ah, the A's. How sweet is this matchup? Do you know that the A's have won eight consecutive playoff games against the Sox, sweeping in 1988 and again in 1990? Do you also know that the A's have not won a playoff series since Roger Clemens -- wearing eyeblack on his face and Ninja Turtle laces in his shoes -- imploded on the mound at the Oakland Coliseum in Game 4 in '90?

Imagine. Billy Beane, the coveted general manager who accepted a job with the Sox, then changed his mind, will be matching wits with Theo Epstein, who got the Sox job only because Beane said no.

The Red Sox bullpen woes are well-documented, but is there a team in the American League that wants to play Boston? Something tells me the Yankees would rather play the Twins or A's. The Sox are dangerous. Pedro Martinez is back to automatic-win status and Boston's offense is off the charts. The Yankees and A's have trouble mounting comebacks. The Red Sox come back all the time.

"I think a win like this can carry us a long way," said Walker. "You think back to a game like tonight, if we're in the first round of the playoffs and we're in that situation, we have a great opportunity."

There was an unusual celebration at the plate when Ortiz came home with the winner. According to Walker, "Everybody was trying to sing Ortiz's song, but nobody knows the words."

Ortiz seemed unaware that his teammates were trying to sing to him. Like Walker and Little, he praised the people who stayed to the finish.

"We want to get to the Series, give these great fans an opportunity to win a championship," said the Dominican slugger. "They deserve this ball club to get to a championship."

Perhaps we're in for another October letdown and we'll look back at these heady days and mock our energy and the innocence. We'll wonder how folks got so carried away, dismissing the club's obvious flaws.

But last night at Fenway was magical. And if it turns out this really is the year, we'll wish we had the late Ken Coleman around to narrate the story of these Cardiac Kids and the impossible dreams they've inspired.

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

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