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Sox fall, but so do records

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Murderers Row never looked so meek. In one of the most stunning achievements in their record-setting display of power and depth, the Red Sox yesterday capped a memorable regular season by breaking the major league record for slugging percentage set by the legendary 1927 Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

The Sox picked up one last homer -- a solo shot by Kevin Millar in a 3-1 loss to the Devil Rays at Tropicana Field -- to finish their 162-game odyssey with a .491 slugging percentage, 2 points better than the '27 Yankees, otherwise known as Murderers Row.

To fathom the enormity of the achievement, consider that the '27 Yanks long have been recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time. Ruth swatted 60 homers and knocked in 164 runs while Gehrig slugged 47 homers and drove in 175 runs before they helped the Yankees sweep the Pirates in the World Series.

The Sox have no one to rival Ruth or Gehrig. But even Murderers Row could not match Grady Little's crew in overall depth. The Sox also set major league records for extra-base hits (649) and total bases (2,832) -- while putting together their winningest season (95-67) since they went to the World Series in 1986 -- largely because:

* Their most frequent eighth hitter, Bill Mueller, won the American League batting title while hitting .326 with 19 homers and 85 RBIs, the best season by a Sox third baseman since future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs hit .363 with 24 homers and 89 RBIs in 1987.

* Their ninth hitter, Jason Varitek, had the most productive season (25 homers and 85 RBIs) for a Boston catcher since Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk (26 homers and 102 RBIs) in 1977.

* Their designated hitter, David Ortiz, went from a bench player to an MVP candidate by leading the Comeback Kids in go-ahead RBIs (24) and two-out RBIs (42) while finishing one shy of the league lead in game-winning RBIs (16). He also ranked second to Alex Rodriguez in slugging percentage, leading three other Sox hitters -- Manny Ramirez, Trot Nixon, and Mueller -- in the top 10.

* One of their superstars, Ramirez, fell just shy of winning his second straight batting title at .325 while knocking in 104 runs and scoring 117; another superstar, Nomar Garciaparra, drove in 105 runs and scored 120.

* Their No. 2 hitter, Todd Walker, drove in more runs (85) than any Sox second baseman since Felix Mantilla (92) in 1965.

On and on it went, as the Sox became the first team since 1900 to have eight players knock in 80 runs or more.

Millar? He not only emerged as the team's most vocal leader but delivered at the plate with career highs in homers (25) and RBIs (96).

Nixon? A career year: .306 with 28 homers and 87 RBIs.

Johnny Damon? An impressive recovery from a slow start, finishing with 103 runs and 30 steals, joining only Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, New York's Alfonso Soriano, and Kansas City's Carlos Beltran as the only players in the league to amass at least 100 runs and 30 steals.

As a measure of how far the Sox have come, consider that Tom Brunansky led the team in 1992 in home runs (15) and RBIs (74).

Considering their depth, it was almost surprising the Sox fell just three doubles short of setting the major league record for a season as well. But they had little trouble setting an array of team standards, including homers (238), extra-base hits, total bases, and sacrifice flies (64). They also ranked among the league leaders in come-from-behind wins (40) and one-run victories (26).

Imagine if they pitched as well as they hit. Even though Pedro Martinez led the majors in ERA (2.22) for the fifth time, the Sox logged their worst team ERA (4.48) since Martinez joined the team in 1998. They last posted a worse ERA in 1997, finishing at 4.87.

The problem, of course, was the bullpen, whose 4.83 ERA ranked third worst in the league, better than only the Royals and Rangers. In perhaps a fitting finish, Sox reliever Brandon Lyon surrendered all three Tampa Bay runs in the eighth inning yesterday to blow a 1-0 lead and suffer the loss. The Sox opened the season at Tropicana Field with Alan Embree and Chad Fox combining to allow five runs in the ninth inning to blow a 4-1 lead in a 6-4 defeat.

No problem. In a crazy way, the Sox seemed to use their most crushing losses to their advantage, almost habitually surging to victories the next day as if the nightmares never occurred. Never mind the toll it took on the nerves.

"In a perfect world, you wouldn't want to have to be in a position where you had to prove your resiliency so much," Little said. "But we did do that this year."

As a result, they were bound last night for Oakland, Calif., and the AL Division Series instead of their winter homes and local golf courses.

"We're proud of where we are right now," Little said. "It's a long road, and everyone worked hard to get where we are. When we get on that plane tonight, we'll be preparing for the next season. And the next series we're going to play will be like every series we've played in September. We'll be playing to win."

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