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Bob Ryan

After climbing back, they're at the peak

DENVER - Eleven days ago, we weren't thinking like this.

Eleven days ago, the Red Sox were in neck-deep doo-doo, down 3-1 to the Indians. Eleven days ago, the talk was of a deep Cleveland lineup and a Boston attack that was a bit too Papi/Mannycentric. Eleven days ago now seems like 11 centuries ago.

With last night's 10-5 conquest of the Colorado Rockies, the Red Sox are up, three games to none, in the World Series, and unless you think there will be some sort of Divine Payback for their historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit three years ago, they're going to win their second world championship in four years. If they don't do it tonight behind Jon Lester, then you can start making plans for the parade because Josh Beckett's pitching tomorrow night.

There was a scare when the Rockies picked up two runs in the sixth and three more in the seventh when Matt Holliday launched Hideki Okajima's first pitch into the shrubbery in faraway center field for a 437-foot three-run bomb. But Okajima got out of the inning without further damage and, along with everyone else in the Red Sox dugout, had a smile put back on his face when back-to-back doubles by Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia produced three very welcome pad runs in the eighth.

Ellsbury went 4 for 5 with three doubles. Pedroia was 3 for 5. Once again, the table-setters put out the good china.

Everyone had to work hard to pull out this 4-hour-19-minute ordeal, including the skipper. Terry Francona revisited his National League managing days with a pair of double-switches, one of which was absolutely prescient when Alex Cora, subbing for Pedroia, laid down a sacrifice bunt that helped manufacture the final run in the eighth.

But just exactly how great are things going for the Red Sox now? Daisuke Matsuzaka had a two-run single in the third.

Old Dice-K looked like every clueless American League pitcher in his first at-bat in the second, whiffing on four pitches against Colorado starter Josh Fogg. And why not? The manager had actually ordered him not to swing when he faced the Pirates in Bradenton in March. But when he came up in the third, the Red Sox leading, 3-0, and the bases loaded following a semi-intentional walk to Julio Lugo, Dice-K hopped on a Fogg curve - why? - and ripped a shot between third and short, bringing home Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek.

Fogg had come into the game with a new reputation as a dragon-slaying pitcher, a guy who had beaten some fairly big names this season (Schilling, Mussina, Webb) in the course of a 10-9 regular season and someone whose assortment of pitches, and overall moxie, might give the Red Sox the same sort of problems they had encountered with Cleveland's Jake Westbrook. Or so the Rockies thought.

Back-to-back infield singles by Ellsbury and Pedroia put him in a first-inning jam, but he extricated himself nicely by striking out David Ortiz and retiring both Manny Ramírez and Lowell on harmless fly balls. But his problems started with two away in the second, when Julio Lugo doubled to center. True, Matsuzaka struck out, but the good part was that Ellsbury would now be leading off the third.

Sure enough, Ellsbury slapped a double past third baseman Garrett Atkins. Ten men later, the Red Sox would have six runs on the board thanks to seven hits and the aforementioned walk, and let's not forget Manny being thrown out at the plate by left fielder Matt Holliday on a very close play following a single by Varitek. All six runs were charged to Fogg.

Included in the attack were an RBI double by Big Papi and another clutch hit by Lowell, who smacked a two-run single up the middle following an intentional walk to Manny. Now that's what I call protection. The final run was produced by an Ellsbury double, giving him two doubles in the inning and making him 3 for 3 by the third inning.

As pleasing an adjunct as that Dice-K RBI single was, of far more overall importance was his pitching. Barring an unimaginable Rockies comeback in this series, this was going to be the final start of Matsuzaka's first season in the major leagues. And there is no doubt he wanted desperately to come up big enough to make everyone feel the big investment had been worth it.

And for five innings he was superb.

Attacking the strike zone is not usually a Dice-K specialty, but he was doing just that through the first five innings. At one point in fourth, he had thrown 46 strikes and 16 balls. His only 1-2-3 inning was the third, but he was not in serious trouble, although he was the beneficiary of a superb defensive collaboration in the fifth, when Lugo roamed far to his right to snare a Kaz Matsui roller into the hole and came up firing a one-hopper to third, with Lowell making a nice snatch of a tough bounce. That erased a lead runner, and Dice-K retired Troy Tulowitzki on a first pitch popup to get out of the inning.

But the pitch count was beginning to mount after some tedious Colorado at-bats in the fourth and fifth (e.g. a 12-pitch caught-looking of Todd Helton), and when Matsuzaka issued one-out back-to-back walks to Helton and Atkins in the fifth, he was up to 101 pitches and it was apparent to one and all he was gassed. Of course, one opinion was all that was needed, and it was no great surprise when Terry Francona came out of the dugout.

Javier Lopez would allow both inherited runners to score before Mike Timlin staggered home (a 410-foot Ryan Spilborghs fly to center and a vicious Jeff Baker liner caught by a leaping Lugo at short), which means it was another tease of a Dice-K start. They didn't knock him around. He avoided giving up a home run (he gave up only one postseason homer), but in four playoff starts he averaged five innings and threw an average of 96 pitches a game. That can't continue.

But that's an issue for 2008. The reality now is that the Red Sox have won six straight games since being on the verge of elimination by the Indians. You'd say we haven't seen anything like this before, but, of course we have. After all, isn't this the Red Sox Century?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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