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Red Sox Machine still roaring

5-4 comeback win ties series; Martinez goes for clincher tonight

With each improbable, exhilarating victory, there is a stronger sense that the Red Sox have bottled some magic, perhaps struck a Faustian bargain that will come due decades from now. In the meantime, the region is at once exhausted and electrified as the Olde Towne Team marches toward what could be its first world championship in 85 years.

And to think that this is only the first round of the playoffs.

A wacky, wonderful weekend (all inside 21 hours) at Fenway Park climaxed yesterday when David Ortiz -- Yaz-like during September, but mired in an 0-for-16 slump -- stepped into a 3-2 pitch and drilled it deep to right field in the eighth inning. Ortiz's double delivered two runs, pushing the Sox to a series-equalizing 5-4 victory over the Oakland A's. The Sox will be back in Oakland, Calif., tonight and Pedro Martinez stands ready to pitch Boston into a best-of-seven American League Championship Series against the (gulp) New York Yankees.

Can the region stand any more? Can the swelling ranks of Red Sox Nation carry the weight of expectation and ecstasy through a seven-game set with the Yanks, and then on through a World Series?

"How could it get any better than this?" first baseman Kevin Millar asked in the winner's clubhouse as the Sox packed for Oakland and watched the Yankees advance to the ALCS on television. "This is how guys are made heroes. And now we've got Pedro. There's no better guy I'd rather have going for us."

It would be difficult to overstate the level of excitement and decibles at Fenway Saturday night and yesterday. The Sox came home from Oakland down, 0-2, in the series, and looked ready to be eliminated several times in the 11-inning Saturday night special. But Trot Nixon capped the evening with the most memoralbe Boston homer since Carlton Fisk's 1975 shot off the foul pole and folks came to Fenway yesterday carrying "Nixon for President" signs.

Today it's proably "Ortiz for President," and tomorrow it could be "Pedro for President."

The nonstop late-inning drama of 2003 is not something you are imagining. The weekend's wins marked the 24th and 25th times the Red Sox won in their final at-bat. New Englanders old enough to remember 1967 are rightfully embracing this Sox edition as the friendly twin of the Impossible Dream team.

Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who came of baseball age during the 1970s, summed up the stardust weekend, saying, "A great team meets a great fan base in a great ballpark. Two last-at-bat victories reflects the nature of the team and our season. This is the reason we're all baseball fans."

Before Boston gets all Cowboyed Up for the Yankees (the Sox lost the 1999 ALCS to the Yanks in five games), remember the A's are certainly capable of stopping the Sox, especially with lefthander Barry Zito, the Game 2 winner, on the mound tonight at Network Associates Coliseum. But after three years of first-round playoffs losses, and some hideous play and blown leads in Boston, the A's are carrying extra weight normally associated with the Red Sox. A fourth straight one-and-out would expose the myth of Billy Beane's "Moneyball" A's.

Making life especially tough for Oakland tonight, the A's are going to have to beat Martinez, perhaps the best starting pitcher since Sandy Koufax. And they are going to have to hit against him in the tough twilight hours (the game starts at 5 p.m. on the West Coast).

The Red Sox certainly have the momentum. The A's blew two leads yesterday and made five errors in two Fenway games. They also neglected to run for home plate twice, and lost their ace (Tim Hudson) to a strained oblique muscle after one inning. We also saw the first cracks in closer Keith Foulke, who blew the lead in the eighth, surrendering two runs on three hits, including Ortiz's game-breaker.

Ah, Ortiz. A midwinter free agent signee, brought to town by Epstein and Bill James, the Dominican slugger got hot around the Fourth of July and carried the team at times down the stretch. He earned Most Valuable Player consideration and galvanized the clubhouse and the community. The A's claimed they found a hole in his swing and exploited the weakness, getting him out 30 times in 31 trips (including the regular season), but none of that mattered when it counted most yesterday.

"I don't think I was struggling," said Ortiz. "I'm just not hitting the ball where I want it. Everybody knows this is the best pitching in the American League. If I was struggling, I don't think I would have hit the ball to win the game. Don't give up on me, people. Come on."

It would be appropriate here to say some nice things about the much-maligned Red Sox bullpen. Since Byung Hyun Kim (the much-maligned closer is not likely to be seen again when it counts) and Alan Embree coughed up the lead in an excruciating Game 1 loss, the Sox relief corps has been nearly flawless. Tim Wakefield provided the bridge to Scott Williamson yesterday and Williamson pitched two perfect innings, striking out three.

Long after the game was over, fans waited outside at the corner of Yawkey Way and Van Ness Street while the Sox packed and got on a bus bound for Logan and the flight to California. It was the conclusion of one of the best sports weekends in the long history of our town and if the Red Sox win tonight they'll be back next weekend to play the Yankees for the right to go to the World Series.

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