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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

It's time to get caught up in the chase

For a while, it was tempting to think the Yankees might go away. Fade into the sunset. Disappear from sight altogether. The Red Sox had ripped off 12 straight wins and Yankee millionaires were falling like Italian soccer players in the path of Zinedine Zidane. The Red Sox were going to win the American League East with ease. Like Secretariat in the Belmont or some such thing . . . And now the Yankees are in the rearview mirror again, high beams blinking, grill touching your rear bumper. Increasing your paranoia.

Caution: Objects may be closer than they appear.

``We never thought they were going away," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said yesterday afternoon from the Sox clubhouse, where a giant flat-screen television showed the Bronx Bombers trouncing the world champion Chicago White Sox, 14-3, to pull to within one game of first place. ``They score a lot of runs and they have veteran pitchers. They deserve a lot of credit."

Chairman Tom Werner echoed, ``It's foolish any year to think the Yankees are not going to be competitive."

The Yankees have finished first and the Red Sox second for eight consecutive seasons (some like to think last year was a tie, but New York was awarded the division based on head-to-head record). That is a major league record. Less then two weeks ago, the Red Sox held a four-game lead over the Steinbrenner AC. Boston's lead was three games at the All-Star break. In the wake of last night's thrilling Curt Schilling performance (seven innings of two-hit, one-walk, nine-strikeout pitching in a 7-0 victory over the A's), Boston leads New York by 1 1/2 games. Seventy-three games remain.

So once again we are in a New York state of mind. Even though it's July 16. Even though the Sox don't play the Yankees again until the third week of August.

``It doesn't matter who we're playing, everyone in the stands is passionate about the Yankees," said Kevin Youkilis. ``The other night we were getting our [butts] kicked by the A's and fans are chanting, `Yankees suck!' No one ever chants `Blue Jays suck!' "

We all had some fun mocking New York's near-$200 million payroll when Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield went down with injuries. New York's pitching seemed to be in tatters with Randy Johnson looking old, Carl Pavano forever on the shelf, Shawn Chacon flaming out, Aaron Small designated for assignment, and important games entrusted to Mr. Wright and Mr. Wang. Melky Cabrera? Andy Phillips? Time to bury the Pinstripes.

``Are you kidding me?" responded captain Jason Varitek. ``We never thought that. We worry about the whole division."

Trot Nixon, who has been on the second-place Sox for all eight seasons, said, ``They've had a lot of injuries, but those of us in this clubhouse know that we're going to be in a dogfight with them every year. They've still got a good lineup. They've got plenty of offensive weapons and a good pitching staff. Just because Matsui and Sheffield are out doesn't mean their season is washed up."

The Red Sox have been in sole possession of first place for the last 28 days and 93 of 104 days this season (which reminds us of Dan ``More Days in First Place" Duquette). But Boston's three-game losing streak put new energy into the Bronx. The Sox were in danger of tying the Yankees in the loss column before Schill put a stop to the madness.

The Sox play New York nine more times in 2006, including a five-game homestand next month.

``It's not like we're scoreboard watching, but we have a sense of what they are doing and they have a sense of what we are doing," said second baseman Mark Loretta, who is new to these star wars. ``I've been surprised they've been able to win as many games as they have. I mean, we win 12 in a row and not that much changes. With their injuries you'd think maybe we'd have a bigger lead. You've got to give them credit."

The stakes may be higher this year. Boston managed to get into the playoffs despite finishing second to the Yankees in each of the last three seasons. That may not be good enough this time.

``This year, whoever finished second might be going home," said Youkilis.

During the All-Star break, the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez went on record saying the wild-card entry would not come from the East this season. He might have been trying to motivate his team, but if the playoffs started today, the Yankees would be out of the postseason for the first time since 1993.

Epstein disputes the notion that the wild card is out of reach for the East runner-up.

``It's not like the Central Division teams are 12 games up on the Eastern leader," said the GM. ``But that's not really what we think about anyway. Our approach is the same every year. Our approach to New York when we're not playing them is that we assume they are going to win 100 games every year. And we have to win close to 100 games."

One thing that may have changed is the idea that the Red Sox are the more obsessed rival. Baseball stories in New York newspapers have become increasingly Boston-centric. Yesterday's Post insisted that pitcher Sidney Ponson ``snubbed" the Sox when he signed with the Yankees Friday.

``Not true," said Epstein. ``We had no interest in him. None. And you can quote me."

Done.

So there. The Yankees are the desperate ones. The Yankees are the ones who have not won a World Series in the last five years. The Yankees are the ones in second place and doing the chasing. Keep reminding yourself of this if you feel a tap on your rear bumper.

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

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