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Hitless wondering

In crucial spots, Garciaparra isn't hacking it

His voice could be heard over the tumult created by 34,619 fans on their feet in Fenway Park, imploring Nomar Garciaparra to deliver salvation as if at stake were their souls, and not a baseball game, commodities easily confused in New England.

Full count, runners on second and third, Boston hopes of coming back from a three-run deficit hanging in the balance.

"He's gotta do it," said the fan in Section 3 of the right-field grandstand. "Sooner or later, he has to come through."

But when Garciaparra struck out swinging on a fastball from Yankees lefthander David Wells in the third inning, it was almost as if the first gust of winter was produced by that empty blow. There can be no more laters for Garciaparra and the Red Sox, not after

yesterday's crushing 4-2 defeat, not after they were pushed to the brink of elimination by the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. And as the Sox return to the Bronx to try to stave off another pinstriped celebration at their expense, nothing is more perplexing -- and maddening -- for Sox fans than to understand how Garciaparra, for seven years the most dependable of Sox players under the most trying circumstances, has not come through against the Yankees.

Garciaparra has two hits in 19 at-bats this series, a .105 average. He was credited with a run batted in when he grounded to first after Todd Walker's leadoff triple off Mariano Rivera in the eighth, his first RBI in 10 postseason games. He has come to the plate with 14 runners on base in this series; Walker was the first to score as the result of a Garciaparra at-bat.

He is not alone among Sox hitters who have been shut down by the Bombers: Kevin Millar is batting .158, AL batting champion Bill Mueller is at .118, and David Ortiz .188. But coming on the heels of a .170 average in September, Garciaparra has been an awkward parody of himself at the plate, and at the worst possible time.

"His bat's slow, he looks like he's guessing wrong, he looks sluggish," said one major league scout who was here last night. "That's how it looks when you're struggling, but that's what I see, a slower bat. I don't know if it's just because he's in a funk, or

something else is going on. "Obviously, he's not the same. He doesn't have the quick trigger. Usually he's a dead-red, first-ball fastball hitter. If you throw something in the zone hard, he's going to hit it hard somewhere. That pitch he struck out on against Wells, that's normally a pitch he would smoke. I don't know why his bat is slow, but it's not getting in the [hitting] zone like it normally does."

When the Oakland A's faced the Sox in the Division Series, they went after Garciaparra the same way they did during the regular season. "They hammered him inside with fastballs up and in, and then when they got ahead in the count, they didn't throw him anything anywhere near the strike zone, because they knew he was going to chase," said another major league scout whose club followed the Sox the last three weeks of the season. "Everyone knows that.

"He's incredibly talented in expanding the strike zone, but when he's not swinging well, his chasing of pitches is exacerbated. And the Yankees were there. They were watching."

The prolonged slump has generated all kinds of theories -- that

he is hurt, tired, or (in the vein of tired gossip) preoccupied with his wedding with Mia Hamm next month -- on the face of it a preposterous notion for someone as single-minded as Garciaparra is about baseball. Red Sox team doctor Bill Morgan, asked if Garciaparra's surgically repaired right wrist was receiving treatment, said no. "I started wondering about that myself," one club executive said last night, "and I asked the trainers, `Is there something I should know about?' And they said no."

Red Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson has been answering questions all series about Garciaparra.

"It's one of those things where maybe he's trying too hard," Jackson said. "That's human, to try to do too much. I'm sure he's gotten down on himself a little. He wants to produce like everyone else."

Jackson considered it a positive sign that Garciaparra drew two walks yesterday.

"I don't think there's anything major with his swing," said Jackson. "There could be a couple of little mechanical things. He's pulling his shoulder off the ball and trying to feel for the ball."

Garciaparra, who finds having to answer to his success or failings one of the most annoying aspects of his profession, gamely held up through the drill yesterday.

"I'm not pressing," he said.

"It's not for a lack of effort," he said.

"I battled hard, took some good pitches, worked the count to 3-and-2," he said.

"I'll never give up," he said. "This team hasn't given up, and I'm not going to."

He was asked if he feels he has let the team down.

"Ask anybody in here," he said. "I'm harder on myself than anybody. We're all in this together."

What he could not say is when this slump will end.

"I was on second base [when Garciaparra struck out]," Jason Varitek said. "That 3-and-2 pitch was up and in, an outstanding pitcher's pitch. It was close enough to be a strike, a perfect pitch right there.

"We do have tomorrow. We do have tomorrow. I'll talk about what didn't happen when we don't have any more tomorrows."

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