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ON BASEBALL

No loss suffered in the confidence game

NEW YORK -- Mike Flynn, a funeral director from Roslindale, Mass., was one of the thousands of Red Sox fans who spent the weekend in the Bronx and for two giddy days helped transform the upper decks of Yankee Stadium into an outpost of the Nation. "I never thought I'd live to see the day," he said yesterday morning, "where I'd get to chant, `Yankees Suck' in Yankee Stadium."

Call it a case of premature exultation. Yesterday, the Yankees restored some order to what remains for now a pinstripe-dominated universe, squeezing out a 3-1 win over the Sox to restore their lead in the AL East to 2 1/2 games (3 in the loss column) with 20 days left in the season.

But while yesterday's defeat made winning the division more problematic for the Sox, it did not diminish what has been a remarkable week, one in which the Sox won five straight games in three cities against three teams as bent on playing in October as they are, and had the tying run at the plate in the ninth inning yesterday against Mariano Rivera.

A week that began with Manny Ramirez absent, Pedro Martinez hurting, and the Sox reeling ended with Ramirez making two great defensive plays against the Bombers and delivering big hits, Martinez looking like the Pedro of old, David Ortiz applying for folk-hero status, and the Sox taking huge strides toward the postseason.

"We understood what our goal was when we started this streak," said pitcher Tim Wakefield, whose win over Roger Clemens Saturday could not be duplicated yesterday by Jeff Suppan, even though Suppan shut out the Bombers on one hit until Bernie Williams unloaded a two-run home run with two outs in the seventh.

"Everyone understands why we were here, to stay in playoff contention, and we had to take each game one at a time seriously," said Wakefield, who has worn a Sox uniform longer than anyone else in the clubhouse.

"This team has never given up, and today was a great game. Supe pitched unbelievably -- I can't say enough good things about him -- but whether we win this thing will not depend on Jeff Suppan, it will take all 25 of us. And everyone in here understands that."

When the week began, the Sox were 1 1/2 games behind the Seattle Mariners in the wild-card standings. Now, having won five straight before yesterday's loss while the Mariners lost two of three to the Devil Rays and Orioles, the Sox have a 1 1/2-game lead over the Mariners. They may not have been able to beat David Wells yesterday, but they now control their destiny.

"When we left spring training, we said we'd sign off on the idea of being in a position to win," manager Grady Little said. "That's exactly where we are."

On a much darker day than this, after the Sox had dropped two straight to the A's in Fenway Park in August and were looking at a 7 1/2-game deficit against the Yankees, Kevin Millar had brazenly guaranteed the Sox would make the playoffs.

The Sox beat the A's that night, then swept four straight from the Mariners. And nothing has happened since to make Millar back down from that promise. When the Sox are playing in October, he said, they will look back at this past week, especially last Monday's come-from-behind 13-9 win over the Phillies in Philadelphia, as the moment their playoff aspirations took on the aspect of a plan rather than a hope.

"That whole day, the situation, the whole Manny situation, it was like, `What's going on here?' " Millar said. "And then, to get down in the eighth inning on [Jim] Thome's big single, it was like, `Damn.' "

A beaten team would have called it a day at that point. They'd just lost two of three to the Yankees at home, and their day consisted of waking up early in Boston, playing a day game in Philly, then going to Chicago, where the AL Central-leading White Sox awaited.

But the Sox rallied in the ninth to score six times, the last four runs on a grand slam by Trot Nixon, the guy Millar calls the "ultimate dirtbag."

"I don't mean as a player, I mean as a human being," Millar said. "I mean, `Look at him. He's a self-made dirtbag. He puts rosin on his hat, then sticks it in his back pocket. He has pine tar on his glove, and smears stuff on his helmet. And then, because he's slightly overweight, he sweats profusely. I've told him that if he didn't sweat, he'd explode."

As sweet as Nixon's slam was, Millar said, what made the win over the Phillies special was what preceded it. The so-called bit players all came up big. Doug Mirabelli walked and Damian Jackson delivered a big single. Lou Merloni, coming to the plate with the bases loaded when Ramirez declined Little's request to pinch hit, hit a little dribbler to knock in a run. And Millar drew a walk before Nixon unloaded.

The next day in Chicago, the Sox won despite getting just two hits off White Sox ace Bartolo Colon, home runs by Nixon and Gabe Kapler, playing for the benched Ramirez. Ortiz hit two late-inning home runs the next night to beat the White Sox again, Martinez dominated the Yankees Friday night, and the team treated Clemens like an overstuffed pinata while Wakefield held the Yankees scoreless Saturday.

"That game in Philadelphia was a full team effort," Millar said, "and it had a snowball effect. It was like, Bam!, everything started to jell, especially our confidence.

"There is no doubt in my mind," Millar added, "that no one wants to face this lineup. This lineup brings fear."

There was a "fed-up factor," Merloni said, to last Monday's game. "It was like we decided, `We're not going to let this one get away.' Since then it's just been clean baseball -- good defense, great pitching, timely hitting.

"Let's face it, it's not going to be easy the rest of the way. Baltimore plays us tough, and Tampa Bay has been beating the teams out West. But in the past, during a stretch like this, we'd be a game or two under .500 while a team out West was winning a bunch of games in a row. That didn't happen this time, and it won't."

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