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Dan Shaughnessy

Rivals went chin to chin once again

NEW YORK - Clearly, these two teams are constitutionally incapable of just playing baseball games.

No, with the Red Sox and Yankees, there's always more. We get headhunting, ejections, overturned calls by umpires, Major League Baseball fashionistas in the dugout, threats, random Beatle sightings, morality plays, and history . . . always lots of history.

The first-place, best-record-in-baseball Red Sox were unceremoniously swept out of Yankee Stadium yesterday, and the 5-0 series finale will be best remembered for the image of a 98-mile-per-hour-throwing Babe Ruth look-alike tossing back-to-back pitches over the head of Kevin Youkilis in the ninth inning. Rookie Joba Chamberlain's sub sequent ejection came after Terry Francona griped about the fashion police invading his dugout, after the crucial overturned call went against the Sox in the seventh, and after Francona was ejected for the fifth time this season.

The Bronx Broom enabled the Yanks to pull within five games of the Sox in the American League East and no doubt inspired a ration of panic in the global Sox community. If you are a Yankee fan, the better news is that the sweep established the Yanks as wild-card favorites and still Daddies of the Red Sox. The series also set up some drama for the final regular-season set between the ancient rivals at Fenway Sept. 14-16.

"It will be interesting to see how that series plays out," warned Youkilis.

"You know what happens when you wake a sleeping giant," added Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, who never got the ball in the series.

Hard to say which giant was rattled from slumberland this week. But a lot of cages have been rattled.

Red Sox fans need to remember that this is not 1978, when the Sox became the first team in baseball history to be mathematically eliminated while they were still in first place. There is no urgency about making the playoffs in Boston. Bucky Dent and Don Zimmer are not walking through that door.

We know that getting swept by the Yankees wounds the psyche of the Nation and conjures memories of past indignities and humiliations. There was nothing fun about watching Chien-Ming Wang, Chamberlain, and Edwar Ramirez smother the Manny-less Sox on two hits in the matinee matchup. But the straight-set losses in the Bronx failed to put much of a dent in Boston's playoff plans. The Red Sox still have the best record in the game and are five games ahead with 28 to play. Eighteen of those games are at home and 13 are against the Orioles and Devil Rays.

Francona, who told us he was visited by a security official and inspected for uniform conformity (the Sox skipper often fails to wear his regular uniform top underneath his ubiquitous sweat shirt) during the game Wednesday, was not happy when asked if he thinks there is still a pennant race.

"I don't think that deserves an answer," said the manager, who was tossed in the seventh inning for arguing in behalf of Youkilis's base running. "I'm sure you're hoping I'm going to say something stupid. Maybe I just don't feel like saying something stupid."

If Francona had any sense of theater, he would have ripped off all his jerseys and stormed off the field barechested in protest.

Most of us still believe the race in the AL East is over, which is not to say that nothing was established in the moribund hardball theater on 161st Street. What we learned over the last three days is that the Yankees are probably going to be in the playoffs, too. Another Red Sox-Yankees AL Championship Series is a distinct possibility, and the Yankees this week reminded us that they are not to be mocked or dismissed.

New York's veteran starters looked pretty good, and Mariano Rivera again reminded us that he is the best there ever has been at the end of games. We're still waiting for Chamberlain to give up his first major league run. The kid is ferocious.

Meanwhile, the vaunted Yankee lineup is finally intact and ever frightful. In three days, the Yankees beat Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, and Curt Schilling. They also have a good history against Tim Wakefield. Alex Rodriguez is the MVP, Johnny Damon looks healthy, and they have guys hovering around .300 at the bottom of their lineup.

Contrast that with the Boston banjos. Yankees starters took a no-hitter into the sixth Wednesday and into the seventh yesterday. The Sox have a number of automatic outs in their daily lineup, and Manny could be out for another week.

But there is good news in the progress of Schilling. If 50 is the new 30 and pork is the new white meat, then Schilling must be the new Al Nipper. Only better. Hungry for that new contract with the Devil Rays, reinventing himself as a soft-tossing, righthanded Bill Lee, the Big Blowhard was effective against the Yankee thumpers. He surrendered a couple of homers to Robinson Cano but otherwise kept the ball in the yard and frustrated the Yanks with high-80s heat. Schilling causes a lot of fuss for a guy with eight wins in the first week of September, but he's still a force to be reckoned with come October.

And despite what just happened, there will be October baseball in Boston. If you have any doubts, just close your eyes, click your heels together three times, and tell yourself: The Orioles are coming, the Orioles are coming.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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