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United stand

Despite trailing by 3 1/2 games, resilient Red Sox charge into New York with renewed poise

NEW YORK -- Let's see. Tonight's starter, Pedro Martinez, is coming off strep throat and one of the worst starts of his career against the Yankees. The Red Sox are so uncertain about how much they can expect from their ace that one team official summed up the situation by crossing his fingers. Oh, and Martinez is scheduled to face Andy Pettitte, who has gone undefeated in three starts against the Sox this season while shackling the game's most potent offense to a paltry .190 batting average.

Tomorrow's starter, Tim Wakefield, is battling through his roughest stretch of the season, a three-game winless streak in which he has logged an 8.22 ERA. The knuckleballer will start for the fourth time this season against old friend Roger Clemens, who has prevailed in two of the first three games and has lost only once in his last seven starts since July 24.

Then there's Sunday's starter, Jeff Suppan, who will make his first appearance in a Sox uniform at Yankee Stadium since May 24, 1997, when he was 22. Suppan, who will face David Wells, is winless in six career outings against the Yankees.

So, the Sox must have spent their offday yesterday slouching about Gotham as if they were bound for a wake, right?

Wrong.

Not with the Sox emboldened by winning three straight thrillers on the road against the playoff-contending Phillies and White Sox.

Not with David Ortiz saddling the team to his back as if he were the East Coast's Barry Bonds, a thunderous force supported by more weapons in the Sox lineup than Giants fans could ever fathom complementing Bonds.

And not with the adversity-defying Sox making "resiliency" as much a Boston watchword in the summer of '03 as Nomah and chowdah. Here they go again, emerging from the briar patch of another pharyngitis miniflap, descending on Boss Steinbrenner's house to try to steal another chunk of the Yankees's shrinking lead in the American League East.

Struggling to stay afloat in a 7 1/2-game quagmire of a deficit as recently as Aug. 20, the Sox will send Martinez to the mound tonight trailing by 3 1/2 games with three to go in the Bronx before their final push toward the postseason. They will play 17 of their last 20 games against sub-.500 teams after vacating the Bronx.

"I don't know what's going to happen every day we take the field, but I know it's going to be exciting," manager Grady Little said. "There's still a lot of baseball to play and a lot of things can happen."

This much is certain. While no one in the Sox clubhouse was confident enough to forecast a weekend sweep, the consensus remains that the division and wild-card races will be decided in the final week of the season. The Sox believe they have the talent, character, and chemistry to figure prominently in both, and they seem united in trying to avoid turning the showdown against the Yankees into a do-or-die affair.

"I know the fans see this as a very big series," Alan Embree said. "We take it as a pride thing, too. But we're [3 1/2] games out, and it doesn't matter if we're playing the Yankees or Baltimore or Tampa Bay. We have to make up ground and wind up better than the Yankees by the end."

As much as Manny Ramirez might want to play one day in pinstripes, the Sox hope he will help carry them to the promised land by approaching the numbers he put up last September (.396 with 9 homers and 30 RBIs) in winning the batting title. And though his teammates are pleased the latest controversy leading to his one-game benching appears to be history, they have seemed unaffected by the dust-ups surrounding Ramirez or Martinez.

"In the last two weeks, there have been some things going on that people would love to stir up and cause controversy over," Derek Lowe said. "But we know that the only way to win is to stay together. We've had that mentality all year."

Their unity has helped produce one unfathomable rally after another, which helps to explain their 21 victories in their last at-bat and their 38 comeback wins.

"It's been a relentless attitude," Jason Varitek said. "It's just something we developed into. Nobody has panicked. Different people have had to contribute, and it's special when that many people can help."

Lately, Ortiz has been the chief helper, batting ..426 (20 for 47) over his last 13 games with nine homers and 21 RBIs. He has particularly menaced the Yankees this season, batting .381 (16 for 42) over 12 games with six homers and 13 RBIs. The wonder is that he sat out four of the first six games against the Yankees, languishing mostly in Shea Hillenbrand's shadow. He has not missed a Yankees game -- and consistently has flourished -- since Hillenbrand was traded to the Diamondbacks May 29 for Byung Hyun Kim.

Ortiz recently has had the most help at the plate from Trot Nixon, who has hit .366 (15 for 41) over his last 12 games and played a major role in the first two victories on the road trip, going 4 for 7 with two homers and seven RBIS.

"We have probably the two hottest lefties in the league in David Ortiz and Trot Nixon," Kevin Millar said. "They're giving us a big lift."

Now the Sox are hoping Martinez, Wakefield, and Suppan will pitch this weekend like Ortiz and Nixon have hit. Their fingers are crossed.

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