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Yankees rolling, but Sox don't yield

So, what are we to say about a team when it doesn't collapse, fold, choke, fall apart, crumble, disintegrate, melt, break down, crash and burn, fizzle, flop, or fade?

The language is rich in words to describe failure. The Red Sox have had most of those terms applied to them at times throughout their history. So where are the words to describe what these Sox of 2007 are doing, in the face of the best second half the Yankees have had since Joe Torre became manager in 1996?

Somehow, "hanging on" doesn't quite cut it, not when history's most expensive team rolls into town on an 8-1 tear and has run off a record of 40-20 since the All-Star break, a .667 clip that conjures memories of the .684 pace (54-25) the '78 Yanks played at in erasing a 14-game deficit to overtake the Sox. All that winning, and the Yankees arrive 5 1/2 games behind and needing more than a three-game sweep this weekend to catch the Sox.

As good as the Yankees have been, the Sox have not blinked, despite forecasts of folding/spindling/mutilating after they were swept three straight in Yankee Stadium at the end of August. The Sox enter this weekend with a 9-3 record in September, though it took their biggest comeback of the season, rebounding from an 8-1 deficit against the Devil Rays to win, 16-10, Tuesday night, and the belated return the next night of the David Ortiz signature moment, the walkoff home run, to keep the Yankees at bay.

That's why the words came flying out of Jonathan Papelbon following Ortiz's first walkoff home run in more than a year, which produced a 5-4 win over Tampa Bay. "The biggest thing was keeping our lead going into this series," Papelbon said, "and this will build some momentum. The last two or three weeks of the season, it's absolutely huge for this ball club to be going into the stretch with this lead and having some momentum."

The Sox have 15 games left. They have spent 136 days in first place. At 31 games above .500, they are at their high-water mark for the season. At the All-Star break, they were 9 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees, who on May 29 trailed by 14 1/2 games. They have lost 4 1/2 games off their lead since the break, but after playing at a .609 pace before the break (53-34), they have played .600 ball since (36-24). They have stayed the course.

The Yankees, after last night's 2-1 loss in Toronto, have 16 games left. Even if they do not catch the Sox in the American League East, they are leading the wild-card race by a comfortable 3 1/2-game margin over the Detroit Tigers, setting up a possible (likely?) meeting between the archrivals in the AL Championship Series for the third time in five years.

The Sox hope Manny Ramírez will be back in the lineup this weekend. He worked out yesterday at Fenway Park, hitting both in the cage and on the field, a strong indication his strained left oblique muscle has healed sufficiently for him to return. Sox spokesman John Blake said manager Terry Francona called it a "good workday" for Ramírez, but said Francona was noncommittal about when Ramírez would be back.

The Sox are 9-6 in the games Ramírez has missed, but with a .392 average (20 for 51), he is their leading hitter against the Yankees. His four home runs tie him with Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek for the most against the Bombers this season.

The Sox have ostensibly their three best pitchers - Daisuke Matsuzaka, 18-game winner Josh Beckett, and Curt Schilling - lined up to face the Yankees, just as they did in New York when they were swept. None of the three has good numbers against the Yankees this season: Matsuzaka is 2-1 with a 6.98 ERA, Schilling is 0-2 with a 5.76 ERA and has given up eight home runs in 25 innings, and Beckett is 1-1 with a 5.49 ERA.

Matsuzaka, of course, hasn't gotten anybody out in his last five starts, a span in which he has a 9.57 ERA. After a first half in which he was 10-6 with a 3.84 ERA and was striking out more than a batter per inning (123 K's, 119 2/3 innings), Matsuzaka is 4-6 with a 5.57 ERA in the second half, allowing 65 hits and 32 walks in 64 2/3 innings while whiffing just 56 batters. The Globe's resident Daisuke-ologist, Daigo Fujiwara, has calculated that Matsuzaka has thrown more pitches this season (3,125) than he did all of last season in Japan (2,770), and his 29 starts are more than he's had in any previous season except 2001, when he made 33.

Matsuzaka insists fatigue is not a factor, and pitching coach John Farrell points to the 94-mile-an-hour fastball he was throwing last weekend in Baltimore to buttress that argument, but it's clear he has hit a wall. When he was presented a birthday cake Wednesday night by members of the Japanese media (he turned 27 yesterday), he said ruefully, "I hope next year's birthday will be better."

One Japanese newspaper wrote after his last start that Matsuzaka was engaged in "hitori zumo" - which translates to something like "sumo-wrestling himself." It will be a challenge for him tonight not to be pinned by the Yankees, who have six regulars batting .300 or better since the break.

There is also the A-Rod factor: The Yankees third baseman has five home runs against the Sox this season, including two against Schilling, who will be matched up Sunday night against Roger Clemens, the 45-year-old who just had two cortisone injections in his elbow and is finally at a point where he may retire after the season. Put it this way: Unlike Schilling, he has not mused about pitching for Tampa Bay next season.

One fallback the Sox may be considering in case Matsuzaka falters early is having rookie Clay Buchholz on call. Buchholz has not pitched since Sept. 6, when his three innings of scoreless relief constituted a better performance, in the opinion of Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, than the no-hitter in his previous outing.

The Sox will be tested in the first two games by Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang, both 9-2 since the All-Star break. And they surely will renew acquaintances with rookie reliever Joba Chamberlain, who was suspended two games, one for each pitch he threw over the head of Kevin Youkilis in the ninth inning Aug. 30.

"I suppose they don't like me for whatever," Youkilis said last weekend. "I don't know. Maybe they're mad at me."

Or more likely, it comes with the territory when it's Yankees-Red Sox. The Sox are 7-8 against the Bombers this season. The number of runs separating the teams? One. The Yanks have scored 80. Hard to imagine things could get any closer, but check the standings Monday morning. No one has won anything yet.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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