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RED SOX 4, A'S 3

Five-star win

Ramirez, Martinez and Lowe propel Red Sox in clincher

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Heaven can wait. This will do just fine for now.

The angel of unrequited baseball dreams smiled last night on the Red Sox as their Dominican superstars -- Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez -- paced an improbable comeback from a two-game deficit in the best-of-five American League Division Series to eliminate the A's in a 4-3 thriller before 49,397 at Network Associates Coliseum.

Next stop: Fort Steinbrenner, the Bronx, where the Sox and Yankees will open the best-of-seven AL Championship Series tomorrow for a berth in the World Series.

"Thanks to God, we stuck together and everybody picked it up at the right moment," Martinez said amid a shower of champagne and beer in the frenzied postgame celebration.

And he means everybody. The game nearly slipped away in the bottom of the ninth inning as the A's moved runners to second and third base with one out -- then loaded the bases with two outs -- before Derek Lowe rescued Scott Williamson to save the season. Lowe propelled the Sox to their first trip to the ALCS since 1999 by fanning Adam Melhuse for the second out and Terrence Long for the final out, both on nasty sinkerballs.

"It was an emotional roller coaster all week," said Lowe, who picked up his first save since 2001, "and here we are on top."

Don't mothball the creaky relic on Yawkey Way just yet. The sun will continue to rise on Boston's pursuit of its first world title in 85 years as the Sox return home this weekend for Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS thanks largely to Martinez, who limited the desperate A's to three runs over seven-plus innings, and Ramirez, whose three-run shot in the sixth inning off 2002 Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito provided the margin of victory.

It was the fourth game of the series that ended amid dramatic tension, the outcome in serious doubt until the final out.

"It was one of the best postseason series of all time, and the Sox came out on top," general manager Theo Epstein said. "It's unbelievable. We're going in strong to New York."

The triumph came with a price, however, as Johnny Damon was rushed away by ambulance after he suffered a concussion when his head violently collided with Damian Jackson's head as they chased a fly to shallow center in the seventh inning. Damon, who was bleeding near his right eye, lay unconscious for three to four minutes, according to Sox physician Bill Morgan, and lay on the field for nearly 10 minutes before he was taken to Highland Hospital for evaluation. He was conscious as he was lifted into the ambulance and raised his hand as if to say he would be OK. But Morgan said it was doubtful that Damon, who was held overnight at the hospital, would return for at least a few days.

"I'm glad he's doing OK," said Jackson, who had a gash and swelling above his right eye. "I just can't wait for him to get back and celebrate with us."

Martinez and Ramirez got plenty of help pacing the Sox, particularly from Jason Varitek, whose solo blast off Zito accounted for the team's first run, and from a couple of members of Boston's long-maligned bullpen. When Martinez ran out of steam after surrendering two hits for a run to open the eighth inning, Alan Embree and Mike Timlin combined to complete the frame.

It was a perilous juncture because the lengthy delay due to Damon's injury could have altered the course of the game.

"We pretty much willed ourselves to win after that," Embree said. "The big lull could have changed the momentum of the game, but the guys didn't let it happen."

The A's squandered their ninth straight chance to clinch a postseason series since 2000 by allowing the Sox to become only the fourth team to dig themselves out of a 2-0 deficit since the Division Series was inaugurated in 1995. While a number of A's players bristled at Lowe for his celebratory gestures after the final out -- Scott Hatteberg called it "classless" and "a complete lack of respect" -- Oakland general manager Billy Beane attributed the outcome in part to the disparity of the team's payrolls.

"If you want to give me $50 million more, I'll promise you we won't blow the 2-0 lead," he said. "Our guys battled their rear ends off. If you guys want to make an issue of it, so be it."

Martinez, whose next outing could come against Roger Clemens Saturday in the Fens, was just nasty enough to beat the A's without his untouchable stuff. He prevailed by scattering seven hits, walking one, and hitting a batter before he departed amid Oakland's last-gasp rally in the eighth.

"It's just one more victory," he said. "We have a lot to do. We battled hard, and our team did great."

The A's gambled that Zito could match the Sox ace despite pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his career. And though Zito was nearly unhittable in the early innings, the Sox wore him out by the sixth, when Varitek and Ramirez went deep to rout him.

First, Varitek homered leading off, ripping a 3-and-2 fastball over the wall in left field, to erase a 1-0 deficit after Martinez surrendered a run in the fourth. Then, as Zito seemed to tire, Damon further wore him down by waging a nine-pitch battle to emerge from an 0-and-2 hole and draw a key walk. A batter later, Zito plunked Todd Walker with a 2-and-1 pitch, pushing Damon to second and bringing up Ramirez.

Ramirez had looked terrible earlier against Zito, fanning the first two times he faced him. But he told his pal, staffer Ino Guerrero, and others that things would change.

"I told Ino [Zito] was going to make a mistake," Ramirez said, "and I was going to be waiting."

When Zito left an 89-m.p.h. fastball over the plate, Ramirez seized the moment, launching his shot high over the left-field wall to ease the Sox into a 4-1 comfort zone.

"Manny? It was about time," Martinez said. "But he said he would do it and he did it. We believe Manny, anything he says."

The Sox also believe in themselves as they forge ahead with their magical season.

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