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Bring on the Yankees

Sox beat A's in squeaker, 4-3, will play for AL championship

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Next stop, Wonderland.

Actually, the next stop is New York City, home of baseball's "Evil Empire." And you know what they say: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

The fearless, mostly hairless Boston Red Sox last night completed a comeback from an 0-2 deficit in a best-of-five Division Series, beating the Oakland A's, 4-3, to advance to the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, starting tomorrow night in the House That You-Know-Who Built.

As ever, it was not easy for Boston. Oakland put two men in scoring position with one out in the ninth and the Sox didn't clinch until Derek Lowe fanned pinch hitter Terrence Long with the bases loaded and two out. Long was Lowe's second strikeout victim -- both looking -- in the nail-biting ninth.

"This was a game that some Red Sox teams in the past might have lost," said Boston's rookie general manager, Theo Epstein, a fine student of history. "We have a great new attitude. We couldn't have more confidence than we do right now."

Looking ahead to the Yankees, Sox CEO Larry Lucchino said, "I hope we have a chance to write a memorable chapter in what has been a rivalry for the ages. I expect an evenly matched series. Man, it's nice to be talking about taking that next step."

Beating the A's for the third time in three days, the Sox relied on superstars Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, and Lowe. Ramirez broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning with a monstrous three-run homer off Barry Zito, and Martinez pitched seven-plus innings before getting help from relievers Alan Embree and Mike Timlin.

Scott Williamson came on to start the ninth but left in favor of Lowe after walking the first two batters. Lowe struck out Adam Melhuse after a sacrifice bunt, then made things more interesting with another walk before he caught Long looking at a 1-and-2 pitch for the game-ender.

The victory was marred by a frightening seventh-inning collision involving Sox center fielder Johnny Damon and second baseman Damian Jackson. Sprinting from oppositie directions in pursuit of Jermaine Dye's pop to shallow center, the two collided head-to-head. Both players lay still on the outfield grass after the crash, but it was soon clear that Damon's injury was more serious.

Jackson walked off the field without assistance, but Damon was placed in a neck brace, strapped to a stretcher, and wheeled off in an ambulance. Damon was taken to Highland Hospital for evaluation. His injury tempered Boston's celebration somewhat, but hundreds of Sox fans stayed by the visitors' dugout for almost an hour after the game. Several Sox players went back out to the field to salute the road-trippers.

Bent on bringing the Hub its first hardball championship in 85 years, the 2003 Sox became only the seventh team in major league history to win a series after trailing, 2-0. The reward is a date with the mighty Yankees, who hold a 26-0 lead over the Red Sox in championships since Boston last won the World Series in 1918. Look for Martinez against Roger Clemens in Game 3 at Fenway Saturday afternoon.

"It's exciting when we play them in April," said Sox manager Grady Little. "So I know in October it will be exciting, too."

"I'm just happy to go back home," said Ramirez, who was talking to almost everyone last night after a silent summer at Fenway. "My friends, they are there and they're going to be happy. It's going to be fun."

The finale started out as a duel between Cy Young winners. Oakland scored first on a walk and Jose Guillen's double in the fourth, but Jason Varitek tied the game with a leadoff homer off Zito in the sixth. That set the stage for Manny. With two on and two out, Ramirez worked the count to 2-and-2, then drove a long shot over the fence in left. He stood in the box and admired it, like a sculptor standing back and gazing at his work in amazement.

"I haven't been swinging the bat good, but I have confidence in myself," said Ramirez. "I told Ino [coach Ino Guerrero] he was going to make a mistake and I was going to be waiting. I just wanted to relax and stay calm and let it happen, not put any pressure on myself in that situation."

It certainly felt like the game was over. Only twice in his career has Martinez failed to hold a three-run lead.

But the ace struggled. The A's pushed a run across in the bottom of the sixth on a pair of doubles. They chased Martinez in the eighth with two more hits and another run. Embree relieved Martinez and got the next two batters on popups. Timlin relieved Embree and got Miguel Tejada to ground to short. Fine work by the pen: eight pitches, seven strikes, three outs.

The ninth was a different story. Second and third, one out. Then bases loaded, two out. Both times, Lowe answered by freezing an Oakland hitter with a front-door sinker.

"Two of the best he's thrown all year," said Varitek.

In the winners' clubhouse, empty champagne bottles rattled in bins, some players smoked cigars, and management personnel wandered among the heroes.

"I don't know where to rank these games anymore," said exhausted chairman Tom Werner. "I thought the ones over the weekend at Fenway were the best. Now this."

And now the Yankees.

Twenty-eight years ago, former Sox owner Tom Yawkey sipped champagne from a paper cup in this place to celebrate a sweep over Oakland that sent his team to a World Series. The Sons of Grady Little are planning on their own trip to the Fall Classic, but first they have to beat the Yankees, which has never been an easy task for the Boston Red Sox.

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