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BOB RYAN

When it comes to drama, they never fall short

Spunk.

A day after the Boston Red Sox had embarrassed themselves in front of their home fans in a rather important game, the fans arrived at the lyric little bandbox of a ballpark reasonably resigned to the inevitability of another Yankee pennant. Their demands were limited: "Please, guys, don't roll over. Make those Sons of Darth Vader earn it. Show a little, yes, spunk."

And they did.

They tied the game in the ninth off Mr. Invincibility, Mariano Rivera, and they won it in the 12th when David Ortiz, the resident Game Decider these past two seasons, smashed a Paul Quantrill pitch into the Yankee bullpen with Manny Ramirez aboard to give themselves a 6-4 victory and avoid what would have been a humiliating four-game sweep. Baseball is scheduled to be played in Boston at 5:10 today. The season is not ovah.

Oh, and have I mentioned that Pedro is pitching? And Curt Schilling will start Game 6 -- assuming . . .

It took a while to get this thing accomplished. What is it with these teams? Couldn't they try to settle their business in something less than four-plus hours? It took a record nine-inning time of 4:20 to complete Saturday's game. Last night, they brought home the daily double. At 5:02, it was the longest game in ALCS history. Tony La Russa must be incredibly jealous.

But it really was great theater, beginning in the ninth inning, when the Red Sox tied the score at 4-4 off the great Yankee closer, who, having allowed the tying run, avoided further damage by getting Ortiz on a pop to second that left the bases loaded.

Rivera had been assigned the job of protecting a 4-3 lead in the eighth. He survived a Ramirez leadoff single by retiring the next three men, but created immediate trouble for himself in the ninth by walking Kevin Millar on a 3-and-1 pitch. Dave Roberts was inserted as a pinch runner, even as everyone from Ft. Kent to Farmington knew he would be attempting to steal second. And so he did, beating a Jorge Posada throw that was a bit to the shortstop side of the bag.

"Dave's one of the few runners in the league who can steal a base when everyone knows he's going to try," said manager Terry Francona.

Roberts didn't have to wait long for more action. Bill Mueller hit a 1-and-1 pitch right up the middle to tie the game. The Red Sox have gotten to Rivera for seven regular-season blown saves over the years, but this was the first time they had gotten the slender Panamanian in the month of October.

The Red Sox had a lot to be thankful for in this one, starting with a very serviceable start by Derek Lowe, who pitched into the sixth, and who would have pitched a lot longer if the fans had their way. There weren't many happy patrons when Francona reacted to a sixth-inning one-out triple by Hideki Matsui by pulling Lowe in favor of Mike Timlin. As Lowe exited the mound, he looked as if his first official act would be phoning Scott Boras to let his agent know this was absolutely, positively the last time he would throw a pitch for the Red Sox.

And now? Hey, you might see him trotting in from the bullpen tonight, which will surely be one more all-hands-on-deck affair.

There was a lot of interesting baseball on display during the course of this long, long, long, long -- did I mention it was a long? -- evening. New York led, 2-0, on another monstrous Alex Rodriguez homer in the third.

His last two smashes in this ballpark, if laid end-to-end, would reach Greenland. But the Sox went ahead with three in the fifth, the big blow being a two-run single off Orlando Hernandez by the irrepressible Ortiz. The Yankees tied it up in the sixth when Bernie Williams's funny chopper somehow eluded both Mueller and Orlando Cabrera to bring home Matsui.

Before this thing was decided, the Red Sox would need some fairly amazin' clutch pitching from Keith Foulke, Alan Embree, and, finally, Curtis Leskanic, who retired Williams on a fly to center with the bases loaded in the 11th and survived a leadoff single by Jorge Posada in the 12th.

That's right; I said Curtis Leskanic. It was that kind of night.

"It doesn't matter about momentum,' said Francona. "It's 3 to 1. We set out today to win. That was our objective. We went through everyone in the bullpen, and we used some people who haven't been playing much."

In addition to the huge Roberts contribution, the Red Sox got a professional sacrifice bunt from the antsy Doug Mientkiewicz in the hectic, tense ninth.

It has gotten to the point with David Ortiz that you almost expect him to come up with a dramatic long ball in the late innings of a big game. The big deal in this game was conquering the indomitable Rivera. "I tell you, he is throwing his best right now," assured Ortiz. "It's hard to score a run off him."

Yes, it is. And it was hard to say anything good about the way the Red Sox played in the first three games, most notably during that abominable stinker they submitted Saturday night.

But it was very easy to fall in love with them all over again last night. Who doesn't like a team with spunk?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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