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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Confident they won't be thrown out at home

OAKLAND, Calif. -- What now? Bruce Springsteen back at Fenway for a duet with the original Rally Karaoke Guy? Everybody over to Theo's house for a team dinner and viewing of "Remember the Titans"?

It's Midnight Cowboy Up time for the Red Sox. They're down, 0-2, in their best-of-five bakeoff with the Oakland A's, and the sand is running out on what has been a glorious 2003 Boston baseball season. Yesterday's lifeless, 5-1 loss in Oakland (technically, that gives them two playoff losses on the 25th anniversary of Bucky Dent) put them in a hole from which only six teams have recovered. One of the six to turn the trick was the 1999 Red Sox, who bounced back with three straight wins after losing the first two games in Cleveland.

Tomorrow night the Sox return to Yawkey Way for the first time since they flooded the Fenway lawn with champagne and declared themselves "Wild Card Champions" ("We're No. 2"?) after annihilating the Orioles eight days ago. There have been few highlights since then. The Sox played out the string in Tampa and got their lunch money stolen in the first two games in Oakland. The A's have beaten the Red Sox on the mound, at the plate, in the dugout, and on the bench.

So what's left for the Sox to do?

"What's left is we're going back to Fenway Park, where we kill the baseball," said Kevin Millar, the verbal leader of Papa Jack's Band of hitters. "What's left is we're ready for our fans to be behind us. Sox Nation. We're going back to our place, and I think it's going to be a different atmosphere."

The Sox were killers at home this year, but it's mediocre pitching they bash, and the A's have shown us none of that. Barry Zito was masterful yesterday with his jughandle curveballs, and it's clear that Oakland has a silent but devastating weapon in reliever Keith Foulke. It would be a mistake to call Foulke a mere closer. In an age of the three-out specialist, he saved 10 games this year by pitching in at least two innings. He tossed three hitless innings of relief Wednesday night, and less than 18 hours later he was back on the mound to close out the second game. He can probably pitch four innings tomorrow if the A's need him.

"The biggest thing is, they've made plays in this series," said Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "That's been it."

Meanwhile, the Sox have not made plays. Slugging Todd Walker had a couple of killer errors (hmmmmm, veteran professional hitter, bats left, shaky in the field -- does Walker remind anyone else of a latter day Bill Buckner?). And though it would be unfair to put any blame on Manny Ramirez's defense, a good left fielder would have caught Eric Byrnes's game-breaking double yesterday. Alas, Manny Ramirez is not a good left fielder.

Manny hasn't been a good hitter yet, either. In a performance thus far reminiscent of Mo Vaughn's 1995 (0 for 14) no-show against the Indians, Ramirez has a single in eight trips, and he's ended seven innings. No doubt it's killing him on the inside. Before it's too late, somebody should nudge Manny and tell him these are the playoffs.

Don't count the Sox out. This has been the year of climbing out of the gutter at Fenway. The Sox have recovered from hideous losses with great regularity. In the wake of Wednesday/Thursday's back-breaking defeat, they didn't show us any of that resiliency yesterday. Blame it on Zito. The Sox are still capable.

Varitek, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, Trot Nixon, Tim Wakefield, Pedro Martinez, and Lou Merloni are the seven veterans who were there in 1999 when the Sox came back from 0-2 and beat the Indians (they got help from Manny, who went 1 for 18 with eight strikeouts for the Tribe).

"The guys that were here in '99 know that we can get it done," said Wakefield, yesterday's loser.

"This loss today shows you how important the first game was," added Nixon. "Now our backs are against the wall, but it seems like in the past when the Red Sox' backs were against the wall, there's been times they saddled up the horses and rode into battle."

"We need to be aggressive and put the pressure on them," said Varitek. "The pressure's on them now to get it done."

Maybe. But it feels more like the pressure's on the Red Sox. If they lose once in the next three days, their season is over. It would be a wildly disappointing finish to a campaign that had many citizens of the Nation convinced this was going to be the magical year. There was a strong sentiment, based on performance, that this team was different, resilient, and not carrying the weight of 85 years of hard luck.

The Sox failed to demonstrate any of the above in the first two games in Oakland. Now they've got to win three straight, or those Cowboy Up T-shirts go into the closet next to your 8-track collection and those "Dukakis for President" bumper stickers.

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

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