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Chapter 7: Another bad ending

After six grueling games, the Red Sox save the worst for last

NEW YORK -- If you're a Red Sox fan you settle for things. Disappointment is part of Red Sox culture, part of the storyline that has fascinated scholars and literary giants for decades. Every day all of us, journalists, novelists, truck drivers, and factor workers are part of this amazing and one-of-a-kind story -- the Red Sox story.

Staring at postseason disappointment again, down 3-2 to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox had battled back to win Game 6, 9-6, Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, to force last night's Game 7, a game-for-the-ages matchup between Cy Young winners Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens.

The final result: Another chapter to the franchise's painful legacy of blown opportunities. After taking a 4-0 lead early against Clemens, and taking a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth, the Red Sox did what they usually do. They collapsed, with Martinez giving up the tying runs in the eighth and Tim Wakefield surrendering the deciding homer in the 11th.

Until Game 7, this year it looked like these Sox might be different. They had dug themselves out of trouble this postseason -- right up until the eighth inning of game 7.

After winning three consecutive games to escape an 0-2 hole in the best-of-five Division Series against Oakland, the Sox had to shuffle their rotation for the ALCS, opening with Wakefield. Sure enough, Wakefield bested Mike Mussina in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, 5-2.

Wakefield was brilliant, while the Sox bullpen, the ultimate Jekyll & Hyde, retired the final nine batters to secure the win, and the Sox produced three homers -- Manny Ramirez (4 for 5) and Todd Walker (off the foul pole) with solo shots, and David Ortiz hit a two-run blast. This uprising was surprising for Ramirez and Ortiz, who batted a combined .146 average (6 for 41) against Oakland. But with Wakefield going against New York's No. 1 starter -- Mussina -- the Red Sox turned a disadvantage entering the series into a 1-0 lead.

That advantage ended quickly.

Andy Pettitte allowed two runs on nine hits over 6 2/3 innings while Jose Contreras and Mariano Rivera were unhittable in relief in evening the series at 1 in a 6-2 Yankees victory in Game 2.

Lowe, who had been the savior of Game 5 in Oakland when he got out of a jam in the ninth to preserve the Sox' win, wasn't quite as sharp.

The score was 4-2 Yankees in the seventh when lefty specialist Scott Sauerbeck, who had revealed before Game 1 that he had injured an oblique muscle while warming up in Game 1 of the Division Series, allowed a two-run double to Jorge Posada, which sealed Boston's fate. Nick Johnson's two-run homer in the second inning, which snapped a 1 for 33 skid, also helped sink Lowe.

The series tied 1-1, the Sox headed back to Fenway Park for three games.

The big story prior to Game 3 was the swift and courageous return of center fielder Johnny Damon. His chilling collision with Damian Jackson in Game 5 in Oakland resulted in a Grade 2 concussion and forced him to sit out the first two games in New York.

He produced three hits in Game 3, a big, fat footnote to a game that will linger in our minds for decades.

Where do you start? Well, it was much like last night -- a Clemens-Martinez duel with the added drama of Clemens making his final Fenway start. That part didn't get completely lost, but the game was marred by an ugly string of incidents started by Martinez. The Sox star pitcher didn't seem to have his usual velocity early, throwing a majority of off-speed pitches. He had been touched up by a Karim Garcia RBI single in the second and Derek Jeter's solo homer in the third, amazingly, the first home run by a righthanded batter off Martinez this season. But in the fourth, Hideki Matsui doubled in a run, and Martinez was in a second-and-third, no-outs jam. With first base open, Martinez plunked Garcia with a fastball off the back shoulder. Garcia was outraged, and began to go toward Martinez before being restrained. Umpire Alfonzo Marquez issued a warning to both benches. Martinez was actually dominant after the incident, which didn't end there.

In the bottom half of the inning, Clemens threw a fastball that was head high but over the plate to leadoff hitter Ramirez. The slugger took offense and started swearing at Clemens and walking toward the mound with bat in hand.

Ramirez was restrained, while Jeter blocked Clemens's path toward Ramirez. Both dugouts emptied, with an enraged Don Zimmer racing, as well as any 72-year-old man can, toward Martinez. Zimmer appeared ready to try to land a left hand when Martinez sidestepped Zimmer, grabbed him around the neck and tossed him to the ground.

Zimmer was taken to the hospital for precautionary reasons after the 4-3 Yankees win, in which Clemens pitched six strong innings, and Rivera closed it out with a two-inning save.

The next day Zimmer expressed his embarrassment over the matter and apologized for his actions. Meanwhile, another incident in the ninth inning that didn't get as much attention began to come to light.

Paul Williams, a part-time groundskeeper stationed in the Yankees bullpen, was allegedly assaulted by Yankees players -- including relief pitcher Jeff Nelson and right fielder Garcia -- when Nelson took offense to Williams cheering for the Red Sox. Williams was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for injuries associated with the beating. Police filed reports about two hours later, indicating they would investigate pursuing charges of assault and battery against Nelson and Garcia.

Later that night, Yankees president Randy Levine accused the Red Sox security force of being "lawless" in allowing the bullpen incident, creating a firestorm between the two front offices. Against the wishes of Major League Baseball, the Red Sox ownership held a press conference the next day prior to Game 4, which was rained out, in which they denounced Levine's comments and threw their support behind Williams. While the Sox were taking a public beating for the behavior of Martinez and Ramirez, which resulted in the players being fined $50,000 and $25,000 respectively for their actions (Garcia was fined $10,000 and Zimmer $5,000), no players felt the need to apologize as Zimmer had.

The rainout helped the Sox immeasurably. They were now able to bypass fourth starter John Burkett and go back to Wakefield. The Yankees also bypassed David Wells for Mussina, setting up a Game 1 rematch. The results were also similar as the Sox won, 3-2, to even the series at 2-2.

Wakefield was even better than in Game 1, allowing one run and five hits over seven innings. Scott Williamson spotted Yankees pinch hitter Ruben Sierra a ninth-inning homer, but the newfound closer cowboyed up to strike out Dave Dellucci and Alfonso Soriano to preserve the win. Soriano was one of the Yankee goats, failing to turn a double play on the slow-footed Jason Varitek that allowed Kevin Millar to score what proved to be the winning run in the seventh inning. In the fourth inning, Walker hit his fifth homer of the playoffs, as Mussina allowed his fifth homer in two starts in the ALCS.

But the Red Sox gave their fans more palpitations in the Fenway finale in Game 5. The Yankees took a 4-2 win as Wells pitched a gem, going seven dominating innings. The Yankees touched up Lowe for three runs in the second inning, the big hit a Garcia two-run single on a 2-1 changeup. Soriano followed with an RBI single to right, and Wells, along with Rivera, took care of the rest.

The Sox bats were alarmingly silent. Bill Mueller, Nomar Garciaparra, Kevin Millar, and David Ortiz were all hitting under .200. In Game 5, Garciaparra stranded runners at second and third by striking out and Ramirez left the bases loaded in the fifth with a ground out to third.

Sox general manager Theo Epstein, a quote machine in this postseason, warned, "Anyone who thinks we're done doesn't know us very well at all."

The young Sox general manager was right. The Red Sox, facing elimination back at Yankee Stadium, beat New York, 9-6. Once again, in a matchup that favored the Yankees -- Pettitte vs. Burkett -- the Sox, who went out to a 4-1 lead only to squander it and fall behind 6-4, came up with a defining seventh inning on a cold, wind-swept night. They scored three runs, as many of the Sox hitters who had been mired in slumps -- Garciaparra, Ramirez and Ortiz, came up with big hits in the inning, while Contreras, who had been lights out earlier in the series, finally blew up. The Sox bullpen, which had given up one run since the first game of the playoffs (21 2/3 innings) again was strong. Bronson Arroyo, Todd Jones, Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, and Williamson helped to slam the door on the win, setting the dramatic stage for last night's Pedro-Roger II.

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