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YANKEES 6, RED SOX 5

Haunting blow

After epic collapse, Sox sent home on Boone's 11th-inning homer in heartbreaking Game 7

NEW YORK -- They never knew any better. To these renegade cowboys, Bill Buckner, Jim Burton, and Johnny Pesky were Red Sox alumni. Fraternity bothers, really. Never the ghosts of lost Octobers whose souls they needed desperately to redeem.

Curse, schmurse, sniffed Grady Little's irrepressible marauders. To them, 1946, 1949, 1967, 1975, 1978, and 1986 added up to nothing more than 2003.

And what a year it was -- until Aaron Boone belted Tim Wakefield's first pitch in the 11th inning for a home run to left field to lift the Yankees to a stunning 6-5 victory in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and plunge a dagger into the heart of Boston's dream season.

"I feel like I let everybody down," said a tearful Wakefield, who kept the Sox in the series by earning two of Boston's three victories. "I'm disappointed in the outcome. It hurts, and all I can say is, `I'm sorry.' "

No, Virginia, there will be no tomorrow for the Comeback Cowboys. No wild card World Series. But no one blamed Wakefield, whose lapse came long after Pedro Martinez let a 5-2 lead slip away in the eighth inning.

"He should never hang his head down," Jason Varitek said. "We would never have had this opportunity if he didn't win two games in this series for us."

The archenemy Yankees open the Fall Classic tomorrow against the Florida Marlins, while the Sox shelve their season of destiny and wait till next year -- again. Make that 85 years and counting. But, oh, how this one hurt.

"It's heartbreaking because it's the end for these guys," Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. "They all were part of something special. I don't care whether history reflects it, but they are champions for being part of this team."

This time, the Sox were five outs shy of securing their first World Series berth in 17 years when an eerily familiar hitch developed in the unlikeliest of forms: The Franchise, Martinez.

The Sox ace suddenly lost his magic with one out in the eighth inning and the Sox leading, 5-2, thanks to home runs by Trot Nixon (a two-run shot), Kevin Millar, and David Ortiz, and an unearned run generated by Yankee third baseman Enrique Wilson's throwing error. Martinez, who had outdueled Roger Clemens in the first Game 7 matchup of future Hall of Famers in 73 years, had surrendered only two runs on six hits until then, persevering long after Clemens was routed before retiring a batter in the fourth inning.

Then, boom. Derek Jeter doubled off the Sox ace to the warning track in right.

Bing. Bernie Williams singled home Jeter to make it 5-3.

Bang. Hideki Matsui ripped a ground-rule double down the right-field line, clearing the way for Jorge Posada to dump a game-tying two-run blooper to shallow center.

Little visited Martinez after the single by Williams to gauge the ace's readiness for the rest of the struggle.

"He asked me if I had enough bullets in my tank to get them out and I said yes," Martinez said. "I would never say no. I tried hard and I did whatever possible to win a ballgame."

And so it stood, 5-5, until Boone's blast ended the classic.

"We're not stunned at all," Martinez insisted. "We knew we were competing against a very good team, a very professional team that we never underestimated. They did what they had to do to win a ballgame. I respect them for that. There's nothing I can say bad against those guys. I wish them luck against the Marlins. Let it be God's wishes in whatever they do."

Still, it ranked among the most crushing losses in Sox history.

"It's something I can't really describe," Martinez said of the sadness. "You've got to live with this team and go out there and survive with this team over the whole season to describe exactly how you feel, and how hurt you are after a loss like that."

So it was that tears flowed in the Hub, and the Sox, instead of ending a historic series frothing in champagne in the House That Ruth Built, turned homeward with a bad taste in their mouths, almost like sour grapes, though they expressed no bitterness.

"I'm proud to be a Boston Red Sox," Varitek said. "This group of guys exemplified team, all year and all night in this game."

The Sox fell short in part because they went scoreless in six of the last seven innings, including the final three during which they were overpowered by Yankee ubercloser Mariano Rivera. Their only hope came in the 10th inning when David Ortiz stroked a two-out double to left field, but pinch runner Gabe Kabler went no farther as Kevin Millar popped out to end the inning.

Rivera was named Most Valuable Player of the series, but was in position to win the honor in part because Martinez allowed two home runs -- both to Jason Giambi -- for only the second time this year (and for the first time since April 2 against the Angels). 

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