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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Their fortunes certainly took one wild turn

NEW YORK -- Never mind.

It was fun while it lasted. Red Sox Nation took great delight in the Yankees' late-season foibles. For a few weeks it really felt like 1978 in reverse as the Sox cut New York's first-place lead from 10 1/2 to two games in just 24 days. The Sons of Terry Francona were baseball's It Boys, bound to finally overtake the Yankees and be feared as the most dangerous potential playoff entry in the American League.

The players even started to believe it, printing "Tell 'Em We're Coming and Hell is Coming With Us" T-shirts and suggesting the Yankees must be worried. When they stunned the Yanks and Mariano Rivera with two runs in the ninth on soggy Friday night, it looked like the Sox actually might close the deal.

But then Derek Lowe spit the bit Saturday and Pedro Martinez was routed (three homers, eight earned runs) and hooted off the mound yesterday, and we were reminded once again the team from the Apple doesn't take the apple in showdowns against the Red Sox. Saturday's 14-4 beating was followed by yesterday's 11-1 pasting, and brave Sox fans who made the trip to New York needed bags on their heads to hide from entitled masses who taunted and toasted them during 18 easy innings of a two-day landslide. The Red Sox led in only two of the 27 innings of the series. It can't be a good thing when Adam Hyzdu finishes in left field in back-to-back games at Yankee Stadium.

How bad was it? It was alarmingly close to a three-game sweep. Proud Jason Varitek, hailed as the man who kick-started Boston's second-half surge with his glove to the face of Alex Rodriguez, went 0 for 10 in the series with eight strikeouts. The flat-topped catcher finished his regular season at Yankee Stadium with zero hits in 34 at-bats, including 19 strikeouts.

So now your Sox trail by 4 1/2 games with 14 to play, and even though there are three more against the Yankees at Fenway Park starting Friday, it seems safe to conclude Boston will finish second to New York for a record seventh consecutive season. It won't matter, of course, if the Sox prevail in the playoffs, but events of the Lost Weekend put the brakes on the runaway train of Hub hardball optimism. The Yankees are flawed and vulnerable, but until the Sox beat them on the field in the playoffs, your New York friends retain bragging rights.

"They did what they had to do," reasoned Sox manager Francona. "They put us in the rearview mirror a little bit, which is what they needed to do. But we'll be all right. We'll come back."

Naturally, few of the Sox would admit that the prize to be eyed is now the wild card.

"Oh, gosh," mocked Mike Timlin. "We're going to go home and bury our heads in the sand and never come out again . . . No, we're still going for first place. That's the way you start out the season, and that's what you go for."

"We've got a lot of games in front of us," said Varitek. "We've got to play well no matter who we play. Let's see where we're at next time we play them. Obviously, we didn't play well these last two days."

Martinez was a little more realistic. "If we make it in the wild card, it means the same thing."

Ah, Pedro. There's no disgrace in pitching second to Curt Schilling and it's clear Schilling is Boston's ace. The big guy has four more wins than Pedro and a lower ERA. It's great that Pedro's made all of his starts this year, but he's surrendering gopher balls at an alarming rate. The Yankees took him deep three times yesterday and Martinez has allowed 25 homers in 2004, compared with only seven last year. He also has trouble beating the Yankees. Since Martinez came to the Sox in 1998, the Sox are 11-18 in games he has started against the Yankees, including three in the postseason.

"That's one of the best offenses in the game," said Pedro. "If you make a mistake around the plate with those guys, they're going to hurt you."

So maybe we erred in our assessment of the Yankees. It was easy to mock them after that 22-0 loss to Cleveland, and after the Royals scored 10 against them in an inning, and when Kevin Brown broke his hand in frustration, and when they tried to make the hurricane-weary Devil Rays forfeit. We had fun talking to Jerry Remy about retribution for 1978. It was only a matter of time before somebody found Bobby Sprowl to ask about the Boston Massacre.

But now all that's on hold. The Yankees made the Sox look like chumps on Saturday and yesterday. The Red Sox' noble attempt to overtake and humiliate the Yankees in the first-place chase is just about over. The Nation will have to settle for beating these guys in the playoffs.

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

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