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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Rivalry is exhausting

Another nine innings and another 3 1/2 hours of toe-to-toe, leather-wielding, nonstop action. This time it produced a 12-5 Red Sox victory over the hated Yankees. Watching these two play one another is exhausting. What must the toll be on the people in uniform?

The Sox and Yanks finally say goodbye today. Maybe until next year. We're all hoping it'll be "See You In October" but there is nothing certain about that tune. The only thing we know for sure is that the Yankees (now leading by 4 1/2 with a week to play) are going to finish first and the Sox are going to take the wild card, and the rivals have to win their respective first-round, best-of-five series if the epic duel is to be resumed again this year.

Truth be told, they both seem a little spent and sick of one another. Remember Tommy Lee Jones chasing Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive"? Or Tom Hanks pursuing Leonardo DiCaprio in "Catch Me If You Can"? That's what this Red Sox-Yankee thing feels like. Seasons come. Seasons go. The Yankees take the lead, the Sox smell the trail of blood and try to hunt them down.

"We're sick of seeing each other, that's for sure," Johnny Damon said after Saturday's win made it 22-22 (including postseason) since the "Evil Empire" nonsense preceding the 2003 season.

Jake LaMotta once said that he fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times he got diabetes. That's what this Red Sox-Yankee thing has become. This will be the seventh consecutive season in which the Yankees finish first, the Red Sox second. There's never been anything like it in the history of major league standings. It is Affirmed, Alydar, then the field. Every year.

"I think it probably helps us," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "It can bring the intensity level back up to where it should be. It's a major event 19 times a year. It reminds us of the standards we have. But I think it is exhausting for everybody."

"You pretty much go in knowing it's going to be a four-hour game every time," acknowledged Sox third baseman Bill Mueller.

"One thing is for sure," added Damon. "If we get these guys again in the playoffs, we definitely don't need to have a meeting to prepare for them. We pretty much know what each other has."

The Sox lead this year's season series, 10-8, with the regular-season finale today, featuring Curt Schilling and Karate Kid Kevin Brown. Both bullpens are toast.

Today's joust is the last regular-season game at Fenway in 2004, closing a historic home season in which the Red Sox became only the fourth team in baseball history to fill every seat for every game. Hurricane permitting, the Sox are scheduled to fly to Florida tonight, where they'll play three against the Devil Rays before closing out the regular season in Baltimore. One week from tonight, they'll fly to Minneapolis, Oakland, Anaheim or Texas for the first round of the playoffs. If there is a hardball god, they will open the ALCS Oct. 12 in Yankee Stadium.

It gets better. If Schilling starts the first game of the division series and if the series goes five, and if the Sox play the Yankees in the ALCS that would put Pedro Martinez on the mound in the Bronx for the first game. Now that Pedro has admitted that the Yankees are his "daddy," the possibilities in New York are endless. You know that T-shirts have already been printed. The back pages of the tabloids will be keepers.

How much more can we take? How much more can they give? Larry Lucchino and George Steinbrenner have emptied their vaults of insults. The Star Wars theme has been bounced off the loudspeakers in both ballparks. Derek Jeter has won his "who's better?" contest with Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez has been more valuable to the Red Sox than Alex Rodriguez has been to the Yankees. Joe Torre has outfoxed a handful of Red Sox managers (trying to court favor with Fenway fans, Terry Francona got himself tossed in the sixth last night).

Jose Contreras, who provoked the "Evil Empire" remark, has come and gone. Aaron Boone played basketball and had to go. Karim Garcia moved on to several new teams. Paul Williams had his day in court. Don Zimmer apologized to Pedro and quit on Steinbrenner. Yankee Hater hats were sold and "Yankees (expletive)" chants broke out at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

And even though more players have been hit by pitches (four last night), there hasn't been a bench-clearing brawl for almost two months.

"I think it's probably easier to play than to sit and watch," said Yankees GM Brian Cashman. "It's two prize fighters, constantly going at each other, trading blow after blow."

And so today it'll be game No. 45. The rubber match. This time it counts.

See you in October.

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

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