NEW YORK -- One win. One measly win. That's all the Red Sox figured they needed last night to free them from their prison of pain.
Then an instant classic got in the way.
"You had to see it to believe it," said Manny Ramirez, whose solo shot off Tanyon Sturtze in the top of the 13th inning appeared to deliver the Sox from their most distressing tailspin of the season before disaster struck.
Desperately searching for a way to reverse their spiraling fortunes, the Sox absorbed another terrible shock when former Boston catcher John Flaherty launched a pinch single over Ramirez's head off Curtis Leskanic with two out in the bottom of the 13th inning to drive in Miguel Cairo and lift the Yankees to a 5-4 victory before 55,265 in the Bronx.
The Sox were leading, 4-3, when Leskanic got two outs, and then surrendered three straight hits -- a single by Ruben Sierra, double by Cairo, and single by Flaherty -- in the final collapse.
"Getting two outs and getting that close, it [stinks]," Leskanic said. "It's not fun. I lost the game tonight and I'll take that responsibility."
In one of the most dramatic extra-inning showdowns between the archrivals, the Yankees completed a three-game sweep and gave life to the worst nightmare of the Sox faithful by extending their American League East lead to a whopping 8 1/2 games.
"They got the better of us in this series," Johnny Damon said. "But this is going to be our worst dip in our year. We still believe we're going to go off and win the World Series."
The Sox, who had embarrassed themselves in losing the first two games, took heart that they played an errorless game and played with the resiliency, if not the success, they expect from themselves.
"We didn't lose anything," said Pedro Martinez, who pitched seven innings and departed amid a 3-3 tie. "We played a great game, and we take more from this game than we lose. I bet we'll capitalize on the things we did tonight."
Still, the loss certainly broke hearts throughout Soxville. The elusive victory escaped the Sox after Yankee Derek Jeter denied them in the 12th inning by making a spectacular sprinting catch on a shallow fly near the left-field line by pinch hitter Trot Nixon with two outs and runners at second and third. Jeter's momentum rocketed him into the third row of seats, where he suffered a laceration of his chin and bruises to his right cheek and right shoulder before emerging bloody, ball in hand. (He was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for precautionary X-rays.)
"This game was just as exciting, if not more exciting, than Game 7 [of the ALCS]," said Alan Embree, one of four relievers who held off the Yankees until the 13th.
The Sox also squandered one of the sweetest chances they could imagine against Yankee closer Mariano Rivera in the 11th inning. With no outs, they loaded the bases on singles by David Ortiz and Ramirez (with Ortiz reaching third on Ramirez's single and Ramirez reaching second on a throwing error) and an intentional walk to Jason Varitek. But in a stunning act of futility, Kevin Millar grounded into a double play to third, with Ramirez forced out there by Alex Rodriguez and Gabe Kapler (running for Ortiz) erased at the plate. David McCarty then flied out to complete the bad dream.
"Nobody has to be ashamed," Ramirez said. "We played a great game."
The Sox escaped perilous jams in the ninth, 10th, and 12th innings to stay in contention. In the 12th, the Yankees loaded the bases with one out before Leskanic got Bubba Crosby to bounce into a fielder's choice to short, with Cairo erased at the plate, and fanned Bernie Williams. The Sox, in a rare defensive play, pulled it off in part by using five infielders and leaving only Ramirez and Damon to cover the outfield.
In the 10th, Embree did the honors by getting Williams to line out to third with runners at the corners. Mike Timlin had waded into trouble by surrendering a two-out double to Rodriguez. And A-Rod had stolen third with Embree in the process of walking Crosby.
The previous inning, Keith Foulke, who started the eighth amid the 3-3 tie in relief of Martinez, maneuvered out of trouble with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth by striking out pinch hitter Sierra and getting Kenny Lofton to ground out. Foulke ran into trouble when Hideki Matsui laced a single to center leading off the ninth. A batter later, Jorge Posada doubled Matsui to third before Foulke intentionally walked Tony Clark to load the bases for Sierra.
Long before the dramatic finish, Martinez, Ramirez, and Ortiz made like the Dominican answer to the Smith Brothers. Yes, the bearded cough drop guys who through the years have relieved irritated throats by the millions.
Fresh from helping to raise more than $200,000 to aid victims of deadly floods in their homeland, the Dominican dynamos did all they could to try to help the Sox reverse their fortunes. Martinez went seven strong innings, surrendering three runs on four hits, including home runs by Clark (a two-run shot) and Posada (a solo shot). The Sox ace also provided a touch of electricity by drilling Gary Sheffield in the back in the first after Sheffield stepped out on him in mid-windup.
Ortiz and Ramirez, perhaps the most dangerous 1-2 punch in baseball, tried to do the rest, as they have done much of the season. With the Sox trailing, 3-0, in the sixth, they closed the gap when Ortiz doubled and Ramirez homered off Yankee starter Brad Halsey, making it 3-2.
That ended a fine outing by Halsey, who rationed the Sox only two runs on four hits and a walk over 5 1/3 innings against the Sox ace. The Sox forced the tie in the seventh when McCarty doubled off Paul Quantrill, advanced to third on a single by Kevin Youkilis, and scored when Pokey Reese grounded into a double play.
The Sox, playing without Nomar Garciaparra, who was resting with a nagging Achilles' injury, have dropped five of their last six series and eight of their last 11 games as they dipped closer to a dogfight with the third-place Devil Rays than the Yankees.
Garciaparra said he was ready to play if he were called on.
"It was a little tight today, but if they thought the time came, I would get in," he said. "From the ninth inning on, I was trying to get ready."
He may have added to the drama, not that anyone needed much more out of the 4-hour-23-minute classic.
"I don't think anybody lost here," Martinez said. "The winners were the fans because they got their money's worth."