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RED SOX 3, YANKEES 2

Off the canvas

Red Sox put aside histrionics and get back to business, squaring the series behind Wakefield

There was no letup in tension between the Red Sox and Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series last night, merely an absence of the histrionics over the weekend that had created an embarrassing hiccup in this storied rivalry.

And as Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield demonstrated again, there is a way to throw a purpose pitch other than planting it in the back of an opposing hitter.

With the Sox in desperation mode as they attempted to keep the Yankees from moving within a game of winning their 39th AL pennant and fifth in seven seasons, Wakefield's soft tosses had the Yankees unhinged at the plate, while the Red Sox -- loosened up before the game by comedian Bill Cosby -- maintained an emotional equilibrium light-years removed from Saturday's Game 3 hoohah.

Sox closer Scott Williamson gave a sellout crowd of 34,599 palpitations when Yankee pinch hitter Ruben Sierra homered over the visitors' bullpen with one out in the ninth, the first run allowed by the Sox pen in this series. But Williamson, who credits a heart-to-heart talk with Nomar Garciaparra in Oakland for restoring his confidence, struck out David Dellucci and Alfonso Soriano to preserve a 3-2 Sox win that evened this best-of-seven series at two games apiece.

"We've got a lot of heart and strength in this clubhouse, despite what might be said," said Sox second baseman Todd Walker, who with Trot Nixon hit bases-empty home runs off loser Mike Mussina, taken deep five times in two losses this series.

"I'm telling you," said Walker, who has more home runs in one postseason (five) than any Sox hitter in history, "we're not going to give up. If people don't see that, I don't know what to say. Just like after losing the first two in Oakland, everybody was loose and confident about what we were going to do."

A bit of history suggests the series could swing in Boston's favor: The Yankees had won five straight one-run decisions in LCS play, their last loss coming in Game 2 of the 1980 ALCS against Kansas City. Since the start of the '98 postseason, they are 17-4 in one-run games. Their previous three one-run defeats came in series they lost, the last being the 2001 World Series against Arizona.

Soriano's failure to make what would have been an inning-ending double-play relay with the same amount of urgency that Jason Varitek ran down the line to beat the second baseman's throw allowed Kevin Millar to score what proved to be the deciding run in the seventh, when the Sox took a 3-1 lead.

Varitek didn't start for two reasons: Doug Mirabelli is Wakefield's regular catcher, and because he was 2 for 36 lifetime against Mussina. But after the Sox loaded the bases on a walk to Millar, Nixon's Wall double (his third hit of the game), and an intentional walk to Bill Mueller, Varitek came sprinting in from the bullpen.

"We were trying to tell him to hurry up and get in there," Williamson said. "We were all yelling at him to get in there. You couldn't ask for a better guy. He's a leader for this ball club, a real inspiration, and he came through for us."

No one has ever accused Varitek of leading this team in anything measured with a stopwatch. But he always runs hard, and last night was no exception, as he hit a ball into the hole that shortstop Derek Jeter gloved on the short hop and threw to second. Soriano's relay came within a footstep of catching Varitek.

"Maybe running down from the bullpen warmed him up for that run down the line," said lefthander Alan Embree, "because he got there just in time. He didn't let us down."

Wakefield, even more dominating than he was in Game 1's 5-2 win in the Bronx, held the Bombers to one run on five hits through seven innings, the run scoring in the fifth on Jeter's double that struck the third base bag. Wakefield struck out the side in the sixth, and set down seven Yankees in a row before being lifted for Mike Timlin after walking Jason Giambi to start the eighth.

Showing the same October magic he'd displayed as an unknown 26-year-old rookie for the Pittsburgh Pirates 11 years ago, Wakefield is now raising the possibility that the Sox will run him out one more time in this series, perhaps in Game 7 if it comes to that Thursday in the Bronx.

"His ball moved well in Game 1 and it moved well today, too," Jeter said. "I wish we could have caught him on a day it doesn't move well."

Wakefield, who dodged a bullet in the first when Giambi's bid for a three-run home run drifted just foul, was working with the narrowest margins until the Sox pushed across the run in the seventh. He didn't back off the possibility of an encore in this series.

"Right now I feel great," he said, "but I may be running on adrenaline right now. I always have my spikes on, so we'll see how I feel tomorrow when I come out for BP and play catch."

Why did Little gamble with Varitek, with the numbers so skewed in Mussina's favor?

"I was thinking that he was due," drawled Little, who in the eighth inning drew a roar from the crowd when he asked the umpires to check the glove and belt buckle of Yankees reliever Jeff Nelson, the pitcher accused by Boston police of launching an unprovoked attack on a Sox grounds crew employee.

It was pure gamesmanship by Little, responding to the Game 1 search of Timlin requested by Yankees manager Joe Torre.

"I'm glad I didn't do anything," said Nelson, who was serenaded with chants of "We Want Nelson" and booed mercilessly when he entered. "It would be a rough few days to be called an attacker and a cheater, all at the same time -- two things I've never done in my life."

Walker, meanwhile, continues what may be the greatest farewell act by a Sox player since Ted Williams homered in his final at-bat. Walker, a free agent after this season, is mocking the widely held assumption that he won't be invited back because of his defensive limitations.

At this rate, Sox fans will switch from "Cowboy Up" to another country song: "How Can We Miss You If You Won't Go Away?"

The Sox aren't going away, either. Derek Lowe goes against David Wells this afternoon (4:18 p.m.) in Game 5, and a return trip to the Bronx is assured.

"Hopefully we've got everything behind us," Johnny Damon said, alluding to Saturday's sideshows. "We're hungry to win, and now we know we're going back to New York."

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