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ON BASEBALL

A team with verve suddenly on the verge

NEW YORK -- Can 86 years of tainted history be swept clean by one sweet, absurdly improbable act of redemption, the likes of which has never been seen in hardball history?

Twenty-six times a team has lost the first three games of a postseason series. Twenty times the team that has lost the first three has gone home after the next game. No team trailing, 0-3, has ever won the next three to take it to a deciding seventh game. No team, until these Red Sox, has ever been on the verge of a miracle.

After what we have witnessed the last three days, is there anyone of the non-pinstriped segment of society who believes the Sox are not capable of finishing what will eclipse all the bitter disappointments of the past century as the defining moment of this franchise?

"We're extremely tentative about talking about what we're on the verge of accomplishing," said Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler, a thoughtful man even under the most emotional of circumstances, which would include last night's 4-2 win over the Yankees in Game 6 of this American League Championship Series. "But I think what we've accomplished thus far is the story at this point. I think obviously history shows that this doesn't happen very often.

"What's been special about it is the fashion which we've won games. It hasn't been easy. It never has been easy for us. I'm just so proud of my teammates right now. I think a lot of guys right now are proud of each other."

Walkoff home runs and singles by David Ortiz, who invited his teammates to climb on his massive back. Back-to-back rallies against the greatest closer in postseason history, Mariano Rivera. One negotiated tightrope after another by a bullpen taxed beyond the normal limits of what tired arms should be able to accomplish.

Seven innings last night by Curt Schilling, a pitcher who ignored the blood seeping through his sock, the spillover from a heart bursting at the seams. A game-winning, opposite-field home run by Mark Bellhorn, a second baseman who this season set a club record for strikeouts -- baseball's most glaring act of failure for a hitter -- but who last night delivered a stake into the heart of Yankee invincibility with a three-run blast that landed not far from where Aaron Boone broke New England hearts last October.

This is myth-making time, and the Sox are fully embracing the moment.

"We're a 25-man roster that will do whatever it takes to win," said manager Terry Francona, who sent out his No. 3 starter, Bronson Arroyo, and his indefatigable closer, Keith Foulke, to put away the Bombers in the eighth and ninth last night. "There isn't a player or a pitcher not willing to do whatever we're trying to do to win."

It was Kapler who stood at the top of the dugout and wrapped his arms around Schilling when the righthander finished the seventh inning last night.

"We're really proud of what he did," Kapler said. "I think everybody saw what he went through and he just put together a quality, quality performance. You saw as the game went on how he got stronger. He's just a tremendous competitor."

There's no turning back now, reliever Alan Embree said. They're too close to leaving an imprint unlike any ever achieved by a Red Sox team.

"Nobody gave up and nobody quit," Embree said. "Everybody believed that we could come out here as 25 guys to win. The whole time we kept saying we could do it, take it one game at a time. We put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win this series, and that says something about the true grit of this team.

"We're a team that believed we could do it, once we got in that hole. We showed heart. None of us wanted to go home. Last year left a bad taste in our mouths. This year we had some unfinished business to do. Nobody wanted to go home, and nobody wanted to get swept."

This was Derek Jeter, incomparable captain of the Yankees, when asked about the unthinkable: "I feel good about it. I expect us to win."

The pressure, Foulke said, is all on the Yankees.

Here is Arroyo, the kid with the cornrows, on what it feels like to be a Red Sox player on the doorstep of immortality: "We had a good, calm feeling on the field and in the clubhouse, and I think it will carry over to tomorrow."

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