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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Fun ride almost surely not over

Fenway Park goes dark now. For a while. No "Sweet Caroline." No "Dirty Water." No "Tessie" sweeping up on the big board while the Dropkick Murphys send everybody home with a smile. The only activity at the yard in the next 11 days will be the Sox grounds crew pondering where to put the World Series logo in the grass behind home plate.

The next time we see the Sox play in Boston will be a week from Friday in the third game of the Division Series against probably the Minnesota Twins or the Oakland A's. Derek Lowe probably will be starting that game, with Bronson Arroyo on tap for Game 4, and Curt Schilling lined up for the deciding game on the road if necessary.

It is not too soon to be thinking about the playoffs. Yesterday's Schilling-led 11-4 rout of the Yankees got the Sox closer, and they undoubtedly will clinch a playoff spot while they are in that haunted hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla., this week. Here's hoping they don't give each other wedgies and throw pies this time. A little decorum, please. Act like you've been there before. You have.

The sooner the clinch, the better. That will allow manager Terry Francona to get his rotation in order and start making some hard decisions regarding the playoff roster. Tito can treat the weekend in Baltimore with the same experimental attitude Bill Belichick employed in the Patriots' exhibition finale fraud at Gillette Stadium.

Francona, naturally, won't have any of this discussion until the Sox are officially in the playoffs.

"That would be our goal, certainly," he said. "That's about all you're going to get out of me. Sorry."

Dreamers might argue the Sox still have a chance to win the division. Forget it. The Yankees lead by 3 1/2 with six to play. (Schilling said, "We had our chances and every chance we had they beat us back.") For Red Sox fans, the drama this week will be watching the A's duke it out with the Rangers and Angels, while keeping an eye on the Twins with the hope that somehow the AL West winner finishes ahead of Minnesota.

The Red Sox and Yankees both want to avoid the Twins. Nobody wants any part of suddenly Koufaxian Johan Santana twice in a five-game series. The idea of playing two or three games in the Metrodome is equally unappealing.

The Red Sox could be particularly vulnerable in Minneapolis. Boston went 2-4 against the Twins this year and the oddities of the carpet-and-baggie building can only expose Boston's toolbox. The Sox aren't going to admit this, but they want Oakland. The Sox are the A's daddies. They beat them in the playoffs last season, and outscored the A's, 76-40, while going 8-1 against them this year. It's physical and psychological.

If the A's and Twins win their respective divisions and finish with the same records, the Sox get Oakland because the A's won the regular-season series against the Twins, 5-2. That is a good thing.

It is clear Schilling should get the ball for Game 1. Not even Grady Francona can think otherwise (and could the manager do us a favor and lose the red sweat shirt during games? He looks like he's going to change his oil). Schilling is the undisputed ace and should the Sox fall behind in the series, 2-1, he can come back on three days of rest. Look for Schilling to get a mini-start Friday (or maybe shut it down altogether and just throw on the side) to get ready for next Tuesday in the first game of the first round.

"We have stayed in rotation the whole entire year and we'll continue to do that until it's time not to," said Francona. "That's not here yet. We don't have plans made to do something yet. So you know what I'm saying. I'm not going to go through every single pitcher and evaluate them today. That doesn't make sense."

"I don't have the ability to go there yet," Schilling said when asked about the prospect of pitching the opener. "Until the [magic] number is zero, I've got to get ready to pitch Friday in Baltimore. It's an honor. But regardless of whether [Pedro Martinez] or I get the ball for Game 1, I just want to win."

Sorry, but Tim Wakefield should get bumped in the Division Series. Arroyo has been better and Wakefield can pitch out of the bullpen. Should the Sox get to the Yankees in the ALCS, Wakefield could replace Arroyo or even Lowe if the big sinkerballer spits the bit in the first round.

Look for the Sox to go with 10 pitchers in the first round -- the five starters (including Wakefield in the pen), plus Keith Foulke, Mike Timlin, Mike Myers, Alan Embree, and one more from a group of Scott Williamson, Ramiro Mendoza, and Curtis Leskanic. These next seven games amount to a tryout for those three. This means it's a big week for Williamson; the Sox want him the most, but he must demonstrate that he's healthy and still can throw hard.

Picking 15 position players is pretty easy. It'll be Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli behind the plate; David Ortiz, Doug Mientkiewicz, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, Orlando Cabrera, Pokey Reese, and Kevin Youkilis in the infield, and Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, Gabe Kapler, and Dave Roberts in the outfield. The tough cut is David McCarty.

Remember a couple of weeks ago when we were wondering if Nixon would be an everyday player, or even part of the postseason roster? Looks like the player and the team handled his rehab and return beautifully. He's looking like the Nixon of last year and we know him to be a playoff stud. He hit a walkoff winner against Oakland and three homers against the Yankees last October.

"When the calendar turns to October, people play differently," said Schilling. "It's all a matter of head and mind and talent."

The Red Sox went 11-8 against the Yankees this year. Schilling is a 21-game winner. Boston has broken the 900-run barrier. The Sox are the best team in the American League. Now they just have to go out and prove it to get to where they should have gone last year: the World Series. For the first time in 18 long years.

Meanwhile, Fenway is dark until Game 3. Here's hoping Dr. Charles Steinberg orders the grounds crew to hold off on the World Series logo this time.

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

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