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BOB RYAN

That nice taste in your mouth? It's gravy

Attention Red Sox fans: You're being watched.

Yeah, you, not the just team. You.

I hear it on radio shows all the time. The guy will say, ''So what's the mood in Boston this year? Are people OK with the Sox? Will they be OK if they don't win again? Are people now spoiled? Is it the same as before?"

I mean, you had to know you were going to be watched. There were enough of you out there subscribing to the somewhat convoluted theory that the worst thing that could happen would be for the Red Sox to win the World Series, for that would shatter the woe-is-me mystique that has become so endemic to the experience of Red Sox fandom. By winning it all, the Red Sox would become just another team, not a romantically star-crossed aggregation. I always thought that was nonsense, an absurd reach on the part of pseudo-intellectuals who can spoil the fun with ludicrous over-analysis.

I think most of you would agree that if winning once is good, winning twice is better. I didn't think Red Sox fans would have any problem celebrating continued success. The Celtics did condition many people around here to that concept. And then there's the matter of the Patriots. When you get good enough, you're suddenly playing for history. Four out of five would put the Patriots up there with Lombardi's Gang and the Steel Curtain. That's heady stuff.

Then again, these are the Red Sox we're talking about, and with all due respect to the other professional sports teams in town, especially the men in Foxborough, the lead dog in these here parts remains the baseball franchise.

With 39 games remaining in the regular season, the Red Sox are in the unaccustomed position of being in first place with the flawed Yankees in pursuit, and that alone should make most people around here very happy. Both the AL East crown and a wild-card berth in the playoffs are theirs to lose. When the Red Sox return home to begin a 13-game home stand Friday night against the Tigers, it will be the start of a season-ending stretch in which 24 of 36 games will be played at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox have already compiled a league-best 38-18 home record that features an existing streak of 13 straight. (A round of applause, please, for the Big Guy upstairs and the Aug. 14 rainout.) Common sense says the Sox should hold on to become the AL East champs.

And then?

And then that's where the fun will start and where you will be tested. For surely a man or woman of your erudition must recognize that the Red Sox are nowhere near as well-equipped for postseason play as they were last year. The bashing and smashing that will have accounted for the 95 or so regular-season wins will not determine who wins the tedious and treacherous three rounds that constitute the modern baseball postseason. The Red Sox will not be 9-8ing their way to a title defense.

There are at least 17 teams with a reasonable hope of making the playoffs, 18 if you include Toronto. Of them, I would say nine could win the whole thing. They are, in no order of preference, the Red Sox, Yankees, White Sox, Angels, A's, Braves, Marlins, Cardinals, and Astros. I might even listen to a Minnesota argument, because Lord knows Johan Santana could be a Hershiserian figure in any playoff scenario. Of all those teams, none among those other nine have anything resembling the confusion and uncertainty that exists in the Red Sox pitching department.

The Red Sox enter the stretch run with no No. 1 starter, and, frankly, no No. 2, either. They also enter the stretch run with a closer mess. No other supposed contender has a situation remotely like it.

The good news is that Curt Schilling should have enough time to be whatever it is he's capable of being this year. Beginning tomorrow night in Kansas City, he could have at least eight starts in which to become the ace he was last season. That ought to be enough to get him, as they say, ''stretched out." Assuming he doesn't get hurt again, the worst that could happen is that he rises to the level of Mssrs. Clement, Wells, Wakefield, and Arroyo, all of whom have essentially been No. 3- or 4-level starters this season. The best-case scenario is that he magically becomes Curt Schilling, the man of legend. How awesomely fictional would it be if he returns to peak form just in time to jump on that postseason white horse again? It is conceivable (conceivable, according to Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, meaning ''capable of being imagined or thought.").

Meanwhile, back in the bullpen . . .

It has to be Keith Foulke closing games, unless you think it's going to be Craig Hansen. I'm not trying to be funny. People all over baseball have said from the day of the June draft that whoever took Hansen could be getting a ready-made big league closer. No other team on the contenders list is referencing a rookie who has yet to throw a major league pitch as a possible key component, but no other contender has scuffled in the pen the way Boston has, either. There is always Mike Timlin, who, as long as he can be used to start ninth innings, might do a serviceable job. But that's not really what anybody wants. What the Red Sox want is for Foulke to pitch the way he did in 2004, and if he gets to pitch for the entire month of September, perhaps he can regain his old form.

The problem is that there's a whole lot of ifs and buts and ands and maybes and mights and perhapses and qualifiers and disclaimers involved. It is simply not a rosy scenario. The Red Sox should be able to bludgeon their way through the remainder of the regular season, but when October comes, and a different brand of baseball is required, the odds are clearly against them duplicating last year's success.

That's before we even get into a closer examination of what really went on last year. Never, ever forget the feeling of being down, 0-3, to the Yankees, with a 19-8 Game 3 pounding being the steel boot on the throat. What took place from that point on was unprecedented in the history of sport. To go from that state of hopelessness, despair, frustration, and anger to swigging the champagne in St. Louis a mere 11 days later required more than just winning baseball execution. Why, for example, did Tony Clark's ground-rule double in the ninth inning of Game 5 not stay in the park, thereby bringing home the go-ahead run? Why were the St. Louis batters so incomprehensibly impotent? What was Jeff Suppan thinking? What got into Derek Lowe, he of the 4.93 ERA over 65 starts in two full seasons? Clearly, there was something at least a little cosmic going on.

As far as I'm concerned, the 2005 Red Sox have been playing with, and will continue to play with, house money. There is no reason to complain, and I don't want to hear about the payroll. The Red Sox have been dealt a whole new hand. Enjoy the bashing until the season ends and then sit back and relax. You have one in the hand, and this team isn't supposed to win. That's pretty cushy fan duty, if you ask me.

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

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