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Red Sox ready in Oakland

Anticipation high as ultimate quest starts tonight

OAKLAND, Calif. -- This is the year. It is the mantra of Red Sox Nation, an ever-expanding state that may be recognized by the General Assembly of the United Nations if the Sox finally find success in October. The Sox clinched a spot in baseball's playoffs with a routine rout of the Baltimore Orioles in the regular-season Fenway finale last Thursday, and New England is still hung over from a preposterously overdone celebration that lingered long into the weekend.

Tonight -- late tonight -- baseball resumes as Pedro Martinez takes the mound against the Oakland Athletics in the first game of a best-of-five series for the right to advance to the American League Championship Series.

Before a pitch is thrown, long-suffering Sox fans (are they ever described any other way?) have scripted the ultimate October scenario: The Red Sox beat the A's in Round 1, finally overcome the hated Yankees in the ALCS, then beat the longer-suffering Chicago Cubs in the World Series. The Sox have not played the Cubs since 1918, when Babe Ruth and friends bagged Boston's last championship.

Stephen King has offered that a Sox-Cubs World Series might trigger the apocalypse because it would pit two teams incapable of ultimate victory, but fans in both cities won't have anything to do with negativity this week. All are convinced the long drought is over.

"I think that attitude is created by the positive attitude of the people in this clubhouse," catcher/leader Jason Varitek said in the Sox locker room before yesterday's workout at the cavernous Network Associates Coliseum. "It's been grinded into you that people here are positive. This team has been able to face adversity and bounce back. This is a true team and we've won that way all year."

The Red Sox face a formidable foe in Oakland, a team that won one more game than Boston this year and is in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The A's send ace Tim Hudson to the hill tonight. Hudson threw a 93-pitch, two-hit shutout at the Red Sox in Oakland in August. "By far the best game pitching against our club this year," said Sox manager Grady Little.

Shutting out the Red Sox proved difficult this year. Boston was blanked an American League-low five times. The thundering Red Sox lineup set major league records for slugging percentage (.491), extra-base hits (649), and total bases (2,832) while hitting a franchise-best 238 homers and outscoring Oakland by a whopping 193 runs. The A's, meanwhile, led the league in pitching (3.63 ERA to Boston's 4.48) and enjoyed the AL's best home record, 57-24.

It's long been held that good pitching beats good hitting, especially in postseason play. How do the Sox plan to mash their way into the next round?

"The bottom line is this," stated Sox slugger Kevin Millar. "Hudson is capable of throwing an unbelievable game. He shut us down last time, but he's not going to do that every time or he'd be 35-0. But the thing that puts our lineup aside is its balance. We go left, right, left, right. We have the batting champ [Bill Mueller] batting eighth. There's no matchup against us. That's the plus we have. If the pitchers make their pitches, we're out. But we live off mistakes."

The 10 p.m. starting time will no doubt produce tardiness and baggy eyes in New England tomorrow morning, but the Nation will not sleep while the Sox begin their playoff quest. Game 2 is tomorrow at 4 p.m. and the Sox will come home for Games 3 and 4 (if necessary) at Fenway Saturday and Sunday.

There's no parallel excitement here in the Bay area. The A's have been in the playoffs four straight years and won a championship as recently as 1989. The cross-bay Giants are in their own postseason series, playing the Florida Marlins at Pac Bell Park. There are plenty of tickets available for tonight's games. The A's are taking out ads in the local papers.

The bad news for the A's and their fans is that Martinez appears to be at the top of his game, almost approximating his 1999 form when he enjoyed one of the greatest campaigns in big league history. Still sulking because of a litany of perceived slights (Pedro refused to participate in the mandatory Major League Baseball news conference yesterday), he has been almost untouchable since coughing up a 3-0 lead against the Yankees Aug. 30.

"He's the best I've seen him in two years," said Little.

There. It's all going Boston's way. Seventeen of 18 ESPN baseball experts picked the Red Sox to win this series. The Globe staff is unanimous in its predictions.

"Does that make me anxious?" pondered 29-year-old general manager Theo Epstein. "Yes, a little bit. It's similar to the optimism we had before Opening Day. Our goal then was to make the postseason and our goal now is to have a successful postseason.

"I think there's a lot of things to like about this team. The confidence is a reflection of deserved positive feeling about this club. It's not just blind optimism."

Optimism. The Calvinistic clouds of doubt have dissipated. No one thinks the sky is falling. No one is saying, "They killed our fathers and now they are coming to get us." It's the new world order in an ever-growing Nation.

Playoffs 2003
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