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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

AL East race now a chase

Imagine the satisfaction around these parts if the chant suddenly is true. Maybe it's no longer just the jealous, seventh-grade, "you're fat-you're ugly" taunting. Maybe it's reality. Finally.

Maybe this time the Yankees really do suck.

I mean, losing, 22-0, to the Indians (not very polite of Tribe manager Eric Wedge going for the 2-point conversion after that third touchdown)? El Duque as the No. 1 starter? Two wins in the last 17 starts from the starting rotation? A first-place lead of 10 1/2 games shrinking to 3 1/2 games in 17 days?

What's going on here? Is it possible the estimable Joe Torre is going to go down in history as the skipper of the greatest Yankee choke job in history? Can this really be happening to Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada? Is this what a $183 million payroll buys these days?

Amazing. It is September. The leaves soon will turn brown. And it is the Yankees, not the Red Sox (eight straight wins including last night's 12-7 victory over the Angels) who are falling. The natural order of the universe is scrambled. Black is white. Up is down. Larry Bird just picked up a check. Van Morrison wrote a bad song. Whoopi Goldberg said something funny.

General George Steinbrenner had signs posted inside and outside Yankee Stadium last night. The message was, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." (He probably also gave a locker room pep talk, starting with, "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? No, and it ain't over now!"). Lastly, he issued a statement that read, "Sure, we got punished badly last night. But winners never quit and quitters never win. We all know New Yorkers never quit, and we reflect the spirit of New York."

Perhaps what is most remarkable is the speed with which the Sox have erased most of the Yankees' lead. On the morning of Aug. 16, the Red Sox trailed the Yankees by 10 1/2 games. In 16 days, the Sox shaved seven games off that lead. Oh, and like it or not, Aug. 16 is the day Babe Ruth died in 1948 (Elvis in '77).

"This is happening quicker than what happened to us," said Jerry Remy, All-Star second baseman of the 1978 Boston Folders. "But when your starters win twice in 17 games, this can happen. It's unbelievable. Just by luck your starters would win more than that."

Dennis Eckersley, a 20-game winner for Boston's 78ers, added, "This would make up for '78 cuz they would have [expletive] as bad as we did. There's a lot of pressure on them now."

Much as it hurts, a trip in the Way Back Machine helps underscore what is happening. In '78, the Red Sox led the Yankees by 14 games July 20 (note, the Sox only led the then-second-place Brewers by nine games). In two months, the Red Sox fell to 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees -- a swing of 17 1/2 games. It is often forgotten that those same Sox won 11 of their last 13 and eight straight at the end to force the one-game Bucky Dent playoff.

Both Remy and Eckersley cited shortstop Rick Burleson's ankle injury as a pivotal element of the Sox' collapse. The revival of the Yankees was the other big factor. After Billy Martin was fired and replaced by Bob Lemon, the Yanks took fire, winning 52 of their last 74 games.

"There was more pressure then because there was no wild card," said Eckersley. "These guys today can [blow the lead] and still be in it. We didn't have that luxury. But I was young and really kind of out of it during that time. I remember looking at Yaz when we finally lost, the poor guy. Me, I was thinking, we'll just do it next year. At that age, you just don't know."

Eckersley did have more chances, but not with the Red Sox. Remy wasn't as lucky. 1978 was his one and only chance, and that makes it tougher.

"It's been worse for me since I finished playing," said the RemDawg. "When you're done, you look back and see that that was your only chance."

Many of today's Yankees have a box full of rings. But none of them want to be part of a dubious chapter in pinstripe history. In 101 years of pretty good baseball, the Yankees have never blown a first-place lead of more than six games.

The Sox have not completed this comeback yet. Far from it. Boston still trails by 3 1/2 with 31 to play. But the Sox are hot (14 wins in their last 15 games) while the Yankees are struggling (losing eight of their last 15). Boston has far better starting pitching. The Sox are playing better defense than the 1985 Chicago Bears. And the Red Sox over the last two years have demonstrated that they can go head-to-head with the Bombers on a daily basis.

The Sox and Yankees meet six more times. This time, the Red Sox are the hunters. And suddenly there's a new reason why New York is a city that doesn't sleep.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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