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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Little was too late with ace in a hole

NEW YORK -- One thing the Red Sox have always had is folklore and, on a sad night in the South Bronx, their manager instantly became a part of it.

These days in sports, there are more and more questions about legacies, and Grady Little's legacy will be that he left a Hall of Fame pitcher in the game too long. It's awful that it had to come to this. The Sox and Yankees met 19 times in the regular season. They met seven more times in a thrilling American League Championship Series. They gave the nation an overtime classic in Game 7, going 11 innings until it was time for one side to weep.

And that's the part that makes it difficult to see clearly now. The shock and the tears. An objective version of history will call this a great game. History -- in its balanced, measured tone -- will detail the fans' pacing in between innings, a Yankee comeback and, most memorably, how a stadium with more than 56,000 people went mostly quiet when the Sox took a 4-0 lead in the top of the fourth.

But following the Sox has never been about objectivity. You love this team to exhaustion and, once in a while, you want to hear about a great playoff game that you won. Not the other guy. Especially if the other guy has a white, interlocking "NY" on his cap.

This is the unwritten contract every Sox manager has to accept and, just as important, understand. Walpole Joe Morgan accepted it and understood it. Jimy Williams accepted it and didn't quite understand it. We'll find out where Little stands soon, because he is going to be tested as long as he continues to receive mail on Yawkey Way.

No one really wants to hear about Aaron Boone being a great story. No wants to raise a glass to a man who was traded here from the Reds and came up with the biggest hit of his life. With his big brother Bret watching from the Fox booth, young Boone swung at the first Tim Wakefield pitch he saw in the 11th. He sent a knuckleball deep into the Yankee Stadium sky. A 5-5 tie was broken, New England hearts were broken, and the Yankees were headed to the World Series.

Yankees 6, Red Sox 5.

It didn't have to be this way.

It shouldn't have been this way.

Sox starter Pedro Martinez had a 4-0 lead going into the fifth and a 5-2 lead in the eighth when his manager was faced with a tough decision. Do you leave a tired Martinez in the game to pitch to Hideki Matsui? Or do you go to the bullpen?

Little stuck with Martinez, even though Matsui, a lefthander, hit him well in the infamous Game 3 at Fenway Park.

"Pedro Martinez has been our man all year long," Little said after the loss. "And in a situation like that, he's the one we want on the mound over anybody else we can bring in out of that bullpen.

"He had enough in his tank to finish off [Jorge] Posada. He made some good pitches to him, squeezed his ball out over the infield, and there's nothing we can do about it now."

After Little's decision to stay with his ace, Matsui and Posada produced back-to-back doubles and the Yankees were able to turn a 5-2 deficit into a 5-all tie. Martinez came out then, but it was too late. The members of the bullpen were easy targets most of the season, but that changed in the playoffs. Alan Embree, Mike Timlin and Scott Williamson were starting to become trustworthy. They were rested, too. And not used.

This was more painful than the Sox' 1999 ALCS loss to the Yankees because Boston wasn't as good as New York then. This was difficult to accept because it was not a case of a held ball or a ball sliding through a first baseman's legs. It was not a cheap home run on a routine fly to left. This loss came down to a decision, right and wrong. The right decision would have put the Sox in the World Series for the first time in 17 years. The wrong decision left them staring out onto the Yankee Stadium grass as the team they nearly beat danced, hugged, and cried.

Martinez sat in the dugout watching it all with the gray hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head. New England fans have watched him enough and listened to him enough to know that he can be convincing when he wants something. There is no question that he politicked with Little to stay in the game. But conservation is part of his pitching package now, more than ever. If he isn't pacing himself, someone needs to pace him. The brilliance of the man is that he can get almost anyone out, even when he is throwing in the high 80s and low 90s. There is a warning label, though, and it says this: Use caution when pitch count exceeds 100.

The pitch count was at 115.

Martinez stayed, while Embree, Timlin and Williamson watched.

This is Grady's legacy.

The folksy manager from North Carolina has never been completely embraced in New England. That's not going to change now. He is without a contract for next year, but he's still likely to return. His bosses, Larry Lucchino and John W. Henry, are extremely conscious of image. They will have a hard time justifying parting ways with a man who won 93 games his first season and 95 his second. He tells good jokes. He is one of the boys.

But he should be ready to hold on in 2004 and beyond. This is not over. John McNamara is still being questioned about his decision to remove Roger Clemens from Game 6 of the '86 Series. Still. Little's decision will be questioned and dissected and debated forever.

A man from the South is now part of Sox folklore. It shouldn't have come to this. We shouldn't be talking about yet another great game that was won by the guy in the wrong baseball cap.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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