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BOB RYAN

Playoff jubilation flows at Fenway

Red Sox pound out a 14-3 clincher

"Could this be The Year?"

There may have been no question asked more frequently throughout New England during the summer of 2003. The Red Sox took care of the postseason qualification formality last night with an authoritative 14-3 dispatch of the Baltimore Orioles. They are now the American League's wild-card entry, and will be playing meaningful baseball games in the month of October for the first time since 1999. If everything goes according to plan, the victory celebration in commemoration of the first Red Sox World Championship since 1918 will be held on the Boston Common some time in late October.

Well, that may be getting a bit ahead of the story . . .

From Caribou to Cos Cob, from St. Johnsbury to Seekonk, people wondered all summer whether it was wise to invest their emotional energy in a gritty, spunky, feisty, and charmingly flawed team that hit (splendidly) and pitched (often quite horribly) in classic Red Sox styles.

Most of them took the plunge. If there were fence-sitters remaining, they placed their feet in the affirmative camp Tuesday night when Todd Walker and David Ortiz hit the electrifying home runs that gave the Red Sox a rousing 6-5 comeback victory in 10 innings in one of those games young fans will be recounting to their grandchildren well into the 21st century. And now the full attention of Red Sox Nation can be turned to the future, specifically the American League Division Series that begins Wednesday in Oakland.

The Red Sox distinguished themselves in many ways this season -- mostly with bats in their hands -- but one distinction likely to be theirs for the foreseeable future is this: They have entered the postseason having been shaped, in large measure, by the personnel tinkering of a 29-year-old general manager who not too long ago was devouring his daily dose of Peter Gammons while dreaming of becoming the general manager of, yes, the Boston Red Sox. Spicing the plot, said youthful GM grew up a sacrifice fly from the ballpark. The last Red Sox GM got mileage out of being a Red Sox fan from Dalton, in the Berkshires. This GM grew up a couple of T stops away. Even David Kelley would have recognized this plot as being a bit too preposterous for any broadcast medium.

How did Theo Epstein help his team get where it is? Let us count the ways: 1. He signed Todd Walker (12 home runs, 83 RBIs); 2. He signed, after a diligent international pursuit, Kevin Millar (23 home runs, 92 RBIs, and that's only the beginning of his contribution); 3. He signed Bill Mueller (who may lead the league in batting while slugging well over .500); 4. He signed David Ortiz (31 home runs, 101 RBIs, more certifiable clutch hits in the last two months than anyone in the American League, and that's only the beginning of his contribution).

With Johnny Damon, Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, Trot Nixon, and Jason Varitek already in place, the Red Sox now have a lineup that will lead the American League in batting, runs, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles, and total bases. On a team where offense has always been revered, this club has established itself as being worthy of discussion in the same vein as the Ted Williams-led bashers of the late '40s or the 1978 crew led by league MVP Jim Rice (46 homers, 139 RBIs).

"The superstars were in place," Epstein explained. "The issue was building a quality order, one through nine."

The Boy Wonder GM -- there is no Doogie Howser joke or reference he hasn't heard -- has been less successful constructing a pitching staff to support his mighty mashers. Not one of his pitching moves has been an unqualified success. Fans will be praying to the higher authorities of their choice that, led by the incomparable Pedro Martinez, the starting pitchers will go deep into all playoff games to minimize the chances of an erratic bullpen blowing the game. Theo promises to work on this pitching business during the offseason.

Despite this structural flaw, the Red Sox have won 94 games. Because their batting prowess meant they were seldom out of a game and their pitching inefficiency meant leads were seldom safe, no team in baseball played as many Adventure Theatre Games this season. The madness began on Opening Night in hideous Tropicana Field, when the bullpen turned victory into defeat. And for sheer joyous delirium, nothing will soon top the aforementioned game of Tuesday last, when Walker hit a two-out, two-strike, three-run homer to tie it and Ortiz hit a leadoff homer in the 10th inning to win the game that, for all intents and purposes, guaranteed that the Red Sox would advance to the postseason.

Theo may be a young lad, but a season of such derring-do can put a strain on anyone's ticker, even one in the chest of a 29-year-old. "The toughest part of the job was negotiating the emotional landscape," he said. " Was it just me, or were the highs really high, and the lows really low?" Assuming that wasn't a rhetorical inquiry, the answer, Theo, is that it certainly wasn't just your impression. There may never ever have been a Red Sox season quite like it.

But around here, regular seasons for the past 8 1/2 decades have all too often been the prelude to postseason dramas that end in sorrow. So, could this be the year?

Look at it this way: It's a new century, isn't it? Why not?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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