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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

This closing act was quite striking

Sunday afternoon. Thirty-four thousand sweaty fans standing, cheering. Home team trailing by two. The best hitter vs. a guy throwing 100 miles per hour. Bases loaded. Two outs.

"That's the way baseball is supposed to be," said Oriole coach Elrod Hendricks, who has been in Baltimore for 35 seasons. "The best vs. the best. [Expletive] Abner Doubleday had it right. That's the way it's supposed to be. Nothing is easy."

Nomar was at the bat and this morning there is no joy in Mudville because mighty Nomar struck out on an 86-mile-per-hour slider in the dirt. But this was a fantastic finish and just another reminder of why there's nothing like the Red Sox in a pennant race in August.

Talk radio autopsies no doubt will focus on another subpar outing by Jeff Suppan, ill-fated attempts to steal by Manny Ramirez and Trot Nixon, Boston's inability to hit in clutch situations, the Sox losing five of seven to Baltimore, and the upcoming 14 games with the A's and Mariners. But Fenway's fateful final scene deserves a lingering look because it is one of those moments you live for if you love baseball.

Orioles closer, Jorge Julio, is the perfect enemy in this situation. He's among a handful of major leaguers who gets clocked throwing 100. Only 24 years old, the Venezuelan righty saved 25 games last year and has 29 this season for a team that's under .500. In 46 2/3 innings this year he has 26 walks and 39 strikeouts. His ball even sounds fast.

He came on to start the ninth and 13 of his first 20 pitches were out of the strike zone. He walked Nixon to start the inning, got Todd Walker on a heart-attack flyball (Jay Gibbons battling the Fenway sun) to right, then walked Jason Varitek. After getting Johnny Damon on a pop to short, he walked Bill Mueller to load the bases.

"Julio is out there trying to throw as hard as he can, trying to throw strikes and keep his composure," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "It was one of those big-time confrontations between hitter and pitcher. I don't even know if it gets more dramatic than that."

Garciaparra walked to the plate with his .324 batting average. He's the hitter all Sox fans wanted in this situation.

Ball one. Ninety-nine m.p.h.

Ball two. Ninety-three m.p.h.

Hitters count. Perfect.

But then we saw something nobody expected. Nomar took the next pitch, a 98-m.p.h. heat-seeker. Strike one.

"I've got to make him throw a strike there," reasoned Garciaparra.

Hargrove said, "You sit there and see Nomar, who's a fairly free swinger, take a 2-0 pitch. I don't know the last time I saw Nomar Garciaparra take a 2-0 pitch, trying to work it to where he gets on base and Manny can hit . . . "

Nomar fouled off the next fastball, a 97-m.p.h. serving. Two-two.

Then Julio got tricky. After four straight pitches of 93 or faster, he threw a mid-80s slider. Nomar pulled it foul down the third-base line.

"The slider is only for Nomar because he is a good hitter," said Julio. "I need all my pitches for him."

The next pitch was clocked at 100 and Nomar managed to foul it off. Then came a 99 heater and he fouled that one, too.

Finally, the eighth and final pitch, a slider in the dirt. Ready to pull the trigger on another fastball, Garciaparra swung and missed as the ball bounced into the catcher's mitt. Ballgame.

"I know he's looking for a fastball there," said Julio.

"He made a good pitch and got me out," said Garciaparra. "You've got to react when he's throwing that hard . . . He did a great job. You take your hat off to him. Definitely."

Tough guy to strike out, too. Nomar has fanned only 41 times in 485 at bats.

"I'm scared of nobody," said Julio.

"Nomar had a great at-bat," said Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson. "He threw him all those fastballs and then he tricked him. But it was a good at-bat. He battled and kept battling."

They battle. That's one of the reasons this Sox team is so popular. There haven't been too many dog day afternoons in this muggy march toward September.

Oakland tonight. Pedro. 10 p.m. And again every night -- save for Thursday's matinee -- through Friday.

The New England work force is going to be wearing bags under its eyes this week. Fans can't take their eyes off these Sox. And they know they have to watch every game 'til the final out.

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

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