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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Unrelenting rivalry moves into lion's den

The last time they saw each other, John Kerry was sitting in the Red Sox owner's box on the eve of the Democratic National Convention and the front page of every newspaper in Boston and New York featured a photo of Jason Varitek stuffing his All Star CM 3000 model mitt into the face of Yankee cover boy Alex Rodriguez.

That was the night of July 25, when Nomar Garciaparra played his last home game for the Sox and Boston trailed the Yankees by an apparently insurmountable 8 1/2 games. The Yankees, like Kerry, appeared to have already won the nomination and would finish first to Boston's second for a record seventh consecutive season.

Eight weeks, two nominations, and one megadeal later, the Sox and Yankees meet again tonight in Yankee Stadium and Boston trails New York by a mere 3 1/2 games. It's the first of six meetings between the Sox and Yankees over the next two weekends and these September jousts are generating more hype than some recent World Series.

New York scribes were trolling the Sox clubhouse yesterday afternoon, looking for material suitable for back page headlines. The Sox were on their best behavior. Varitek didn't want any attention, Mike Timlin tried to claim it's just another series (like Tiger is just another golfer and Adrianna just another Jersey girl), and even motormouth Kevin Millar said, "I'm laying low."

God bless the American League schedule-maker (only the threat of rain can mess this up). Finally, a September with good matchups. Though they are ancient rivals, it's rare that the Sox and Yankees have played each other this late in the year during seasons in which each battled for first place. And the unique twist of 2004 has the Sox getting hot late in the season while the Yankees briefly teetered on collapse.

New York, which has never blown a first-place lead of more than six games, led Boston by a whopping 10 1/2 games in mid-August and the Sox chiseled the lead down to 2 games just over a week ago. But it was exhausting. Think of how many times you've seen a basketball team trailing by 25, cut the lead to 6, then exhale and lose by 12. It takes a lot of work to shrink a double-digit lead and Sox fans are no longer confident that the Sons of Tito can overthrow the Empire.

What is beyond dispute is the idea that the brawl of July 24 kick-started the Sox' surge every bit as much as the Nomar trade. And that is what heightens the interest in these games in New York. The Yankees simply aren't used to having somebody steal their lunch money.

Sox fans would do well to remind themselves that the Cowboy Uppers thought they had the Yankees on the run in 2003. They won nine of 19 regular-season meetings, scoring nine or more runs in six of those games. Then came Game 7 of the ALCS when He Who Must Not Be Named listened to a tip from Dan Rather and left Pedro in the game. That, of course, was followed by the offseason stockpiling that was widely viewed as the baseball equivalent of the USA-USSR missile race of the 1960s. Top prize Rodriguez wound up going to the Yankees while the doofus Sox took another cream pie to the face.

The action on the field in 2004 has been no less fierce, culminating with the July 24 brawl that resulted in multiple suspensions, minimal blood (Yankees pitcher Tanyon Sturtze suffered a cut near his ear), and hard feelings that will likely carry over into this weekend and next. The Sox are still mad at Kenny Lofton. They feel he was a Mickey Rivers-esque cheap-shot artist in the brawl.

Millar said, "I'm letting [Gary] Sheffield do the talking [Sheffield told the Post, `If [Varitek] wants to be a tough guy, we'll take that challenge']. I don't think there's hard feelings. It's just a good old rivalry. They know what's at stake and we know what's at stake. We want to win the American League East. It's not `Fight-Night' or anything."

Varitek, who no doubt will feel the wrath of the Bronx that was showered upon Pedro Martinez after Pedro shucked Don Zimmer to the ground last year, said, "I can't worry about it. If the focus on me takes attention off my teammates, fine. As for the Yankees, I don't like them any more or less than I already did."

Varitek has been vilified in New York since the brawl. The episode even inspired an urban legend that held Varitek taunted Rodriguez by telling him, "We don't bother hitting .260 hitters."

"I never said that," a chuckling Varitek said while standing in front of his locker before the Sox' 11-4 win over Tampa Bay last night. "It's like when some New York guy wrote that [Curt] Schilling and I had a problem. Probably the same guy. Let's just play baseball and let the teams get the job done on the field."

Sox righthander Bronson Arroyo, who hit Rodriguez with the pitch that triggered July's donnybrook, gets the start tonight for Boston against Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (8-0), the aging Cuban righthander who has anchored the slumping Yankee staff down the stretch. It'll be Derek Lowe vs. Jon Lieber tomorrow afternoon and Pedro Martinez vs. Mike Mussina in Sunday afternoon's Bronx finale.

One week from tonight, they'll all be back at Fenway.

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

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