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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

On second thought

Sorry. As Rick Pitino would say, ''That's how I felt at the time."

My bad. I Gowdied the season. Got all full of positivity. Saw the glass three-quarters full for a change. I am to predictions what FEMA's Michael Brown was to crisis management. If I went to the racetrack, I'd probably be the guy betting on the Arabian horses.

Gulp. Instead of Secretariat at the Belmont in '73, this could be Charismatic at the Belmont in '99.

I should have known better. These are, after all, the Red Sox, and that trophy you have been photographed with doesn't change the fundamental dynamic between the town and the team. The Sox have been put on this earth to make us suffer. My eyes have seen the gory. The Sox are here to test our resolve. That's why Lobel's got the panic alert button and why the sharp objects have been locked away between now and Oct. 2.

Here we are, looking up at the Yankees. Again. We all know this thing should have been over. The Yankees were there to be beaten. But the Sox eased up on the accelerator, broke down in key places, and now are in danger of finishing second to New York for a record eighth consecutive season. And only 10 games remain.

We thought we put all this stuff to bed last year. No more 1948, 1949, 1974, 1978, 1986, or 2003. No more talk of collapse. The 2004 Red Sox pulled off the greatest comeback in the history of the sport and did it at the expense of the hated New Yorkers. Suddenly the Yankees were the chokers.

Now this. The cleat is on the other foot and the apple is in the other throat.

Yesterday was the Sox' first day off in a month. After groaning about playing 30 games in 30 days, the Sox finally got a day off and the timing was abysmal. True, the Franconamen needed to rest, but it was unfortunate the vacation came on the heels of perhaps the worst night of the season. Wednesday's implosion in St. Petersburg, Fla. -- a truly terrible night in which the Sox yielded first place after more than two months on top -- was the type of game that called for an immediate opportunity for redemption. Instead, the Sox got an extra 24 hours to ponder their plight, while back home they were roasted nonstop by just about anyone with a telephone or a keyboard.

One season ticket-holder informed me that his postseason ticket package arrived via Federal Express Wednesday. More bad timing by the locals.

At this hour, Sox fans need to remind themselves that it is not over. It wasn't over when these guys fell behind, three games to none, in the American League Championship Series last season and it's not over now.

However, this is a bleak time here in the Nation. Among legitimate contenders in the American League, only the White Sox are struggling like the Red Sox and they still have a lead.

The Red Sox? They have the worst bullpen in the AL (5.42 ERA). They have no legitimate closer. Keith Foulke has mercifully hung it up for the year. David Wells just got a cortisone shot and Matt Clement needs to convince us that he's not the new Aaron Sele. Johnny Damon is beat to a pulp and soon will be imitating Wilt Chamberlain's free throws when he tosses from center field. Edgar Renteria has a chance to become a $40 million albatross around the neck of young Theo Epstein.

The manager? Terry Francona has gone from Dick Williams to Butch Hobson in a matter of days. Fans don't understand why he won't use young Craig Hansen (a grizzled veteran of three big league batters) in key moments of these final days. They want to see more of Jonathan Papelbon and less of the Chads. They never again want to see Mike Timlin come into the middle of an inning if there's a runner on base (18 of 32 inherited runners have scored against Timlin).

Curious pitching decisions are part of Sox lore. Joe McCarthy started Denny Galehouse in the one-game playoff with Cleveland in 1948. Galehouse pitched two more big league innings after he was routed in the loss to the Tribe. Darrell Johnson went with Jim Burton in the final inning of the World Series in '75. Burton made one appearance in the majors after losing Game 7. Don Zimmer started Bobby Sprowl in the final game of the Boston Massacre in 1978. Sprowl never won a game in the bigs.

Now we have Francona, protecting Papelbon and Hansen, while hoping his starters can get him into the eighth inning, or at least the seventh. This doesn't bode well for the next 10 days and nobody wins in the postseason without a bullpen.

Lastly, there is the maddening mystery of Manuel Aristides Ramirez, a.k.a. Manny. The season is on the line, and he's still, occasionally, not hustling. His disgraceful trot down the first base line Wednesday was just the latest example of an all-too-familiar pattern. Sure, the guy produces big offensive numbers and certainly is a cuddly cartoon character of a man who plays to the crowd and is generous to kids.

The front office, the manager, and Sox teammates have made their peace with Manny because, apparently, they feel they have no choice. But what about the fans? I'm amazed Red Sox fans look the other way when Manny dogs it, especially in the middle of a pennant race. Normal standards just don't apply with this guy. Winning doesn't matter to him and it seems to be OK with all of you. Amazing.

Just remember, it's not over yet. You heard it here first. From the master of all predictions.

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

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