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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Down, of course, but never out

NEW YORK -- You feel like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day." You watch your beloved Boston ball club blow a 4-1 lead, and you bury your face in your pillow as the game begins to slip away. The boys are down, 6-4, in the seventh inning, and it's the New York Yankees they're playing, which means closer Mariano Rivera is just about ready to glide to the mound and obliterate your dreams. So you start thinking that maybe this wonderful ride is about to end, and then it happens. The alarm clock goes off, and it's 6 o'clock in the morning all over again, as the Red Sox sit up, stretch their arms, and spring into action, ready to live another day, to play another game.

"Didn't I stand here last week and tell you this series would go to Game 7?" said first baseman Kevin Millar, donning a flowered shirt similiar to the one your aunt Maybelle used to wear to the Topsfield Fair. "There is no quit in this clubhouse."

It is a dangerous strategy to always assume you can sweep in and win such critical games at any juncture, regardless of the deficit, or the obstacles placed before you. The Red Sox are confident, but they're not crazy. They don't mean to be the Cowboy Comeback Kids, but their season-long string of heroics do provide them with an unspoken resolve when they fall behind.

That's how they can withstand a four-run explosion from the Yankees in the fourth and emerge unscathed. It's how they can stare a 6-4 deficit in the face in the seventh and thumb their nose at it. You want three runs to win it? Please, allow us. It doesn't matter that Nomar Garciaparra looked so bad at the plate, that restless (and foolish) fans were calling for Lou Merloni to replace him. Who cares if the American League batting champion, Bill Mueller, was batting .118 before this game and hadn't knocked in a single run in this series? There's no time like the present. That's how the Red Sox live, on the edge, predicting greatness against the largest of odds.

"This is exactly the kind of game we've won all year," said starting pitcher John Burkett, with an air of self deprecation. "John Burkett goes out, gives up the lead, and his guys come back to win it. I don't think we ever anticipate these things happening, but when you come out feeling all bummed out, like I did, you can see that these guys are already regrouping."

Boston's most formidable nightmare presented itself when Burkett was only able to last 3 2/3 innings. That forced manager Grady Little to reach back to places in his bullpen that were covered in cobwebs. The young and promising Bronson Arroyo, who pitched a scoreless inning Monday night, was asked to throw 1 1/3 innings. Todd Jones wasn't even on the playoff roster for the Oakland series and hadn't pitched in more than two weeks, but he, too, was asked to come in to stem the tide. And Alan Embree, ideally, is reserved for one or two batters, at most.

Not last night. Embree gutted out 1 2/3 innings, and induced slugger Jason Giambi into a gigantic strikeout with men on second and third with one out in the sixth, then forced Bernie Williams to ground to third (on a nifty defensive play by Mueller, incidentally) to prevent New York from building on its 6-4 lead.

"That was huge," said second baseman Todd Walker. "If they scored another run there, it would have been very difficult for us."

It was precisely what an admittedly jittery Theo Epstein was thinking when Boston's young general manager retreated to the clubhouse to use the restroom. He was fretting about Rivera looming, and hoping to produce runs before then when he ran -- literally -- into Larry Lucchino.

"We never see each other during the game," said Epstein. "We both took note of it. Then I went back up and moved around, trying to find a lucky seat."

Ask his ballplayers and they will tell you there's nothing lucky about how they go about their business. Long ago they decided to establish a fun-loving, and, occasionally cocky atmosphere, a drastic departure from some of the more dour Red Sox teams of the past.

"When you walk into this clubhouse, guys might be feeling a little uptight, but then [David] Ortiz starts laughing and Millar starts joking around and it loosens everybody up," said Walker. "When we're loose, that's when we play our best."

The resiliency of the Boston Red Sox has not gone unnoticed. Oakland's players spoke almost enviously of their ability to stay loose, free, and unencumbered by pressure. The New York Yankees are also taking note as they head to Game 7 tonight.

"They never quit all year long," observed Giambi. "We could never really pull away from them in the division, all the way down to the end, it seemed. They've got great chemistry. They rely on each other, and it shows."

Pitcher Mike Timlin -- who (horrors!) finally gave up a hit last night -- was the one, when the bullpen was being battered earlier this season, that vowed it would be the relievers who would help pull the Red Sox across the finish line when it mattered. But Timlin was in no mood to crow about that last night.

"I'll get real high on us if we win the last game of the World Series," said Timlin. "Otherwise, we've got a game [today], and we've got to throw strikes in that game, too."

Timlin stopped, then smiled every so slightly at the sight of his winning locker room.

"But," he said, "it sure doesn't seem like we want to go home yet."

Set your alarms. Game 7 goes off tonight.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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