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Winner-take-all tonight

Series tied, pennant a game away as Sox beat Yankees, 9-6

NEW YORK -- There was the realization of the Impossible Dream when Jim Lonborg beat the Twins on the final day in 1967. There was Carlton Fisk's Game 6 moonshot off the foul pole in the 1975 World Series. There was Dave Henderson's playoff homer that catapulted the Red Sox into the World Series in 1986. These are the immortal October moments of Boston baseball in the last half-century.

And now there is the miracle comeback in the Bronx in 2003.

Trailing the Yankees, 6-4, in the seventh inning last night -- on the very brink of elimination in the ballyard in which so many Sox hopes have been dashed -- the Red Sox rallied for three runs in the seventh and two more in the ninth to beat the Yankees, 9-6, in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.

So now, after 25 meetings since May (Sox 12, Yankees 13) -- including six soul-sapping playoff games over the last eight days -- it all comes down to one game tonight at Yankee Stadium: Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens, Red Sox vs. Yankees, Athens vs. Sparta for the right to represent the American League in the World Series.

This is hardball heaven in the Hub, potentially the greatest sports event in the long history of our city. It is as if the drama of the quarter-century-old Bucky Dent playoff game has been stretched over a full season and a seven-game series. And the Sox seem to have the Yankees on the run.

Tonight features a matchup of two of the three greatest Red Sox pitchers of all time (Cy Young is the third), future Hall of Famers who have won nine Cy Young Awards. It is also a rematch of Saturday's chaotic contest at Fenway that was lowlighted when 72-year-old Yankee coach (and former Sox manager) Don Zimmer charged at Martinez after Martinez hit one Yankee and threatened others. There'll be a combustible climate for tonight's ultimate game. All parties are hoping that the Yankee fans and ballplayers from both teams behave.

The '03 Red Sox have been telling us they are different for a couple of months now. They fought off the wild-card challenge from the Mariners. Then they came back from an 0-2 deficit against Oakland in the Division Series and won three straight. And now they have rebounded from overwhelming odds in the very House That Ruth Built. Reverse the Curse has a chance to be more than a T-shirt.

"I've never been around a club quite like this," said Sox manager Grady Little. "But tonight, the way that game went down out there, it typified our whole season. The majority of our season was played just like that."

There was an air of Yankee invincibility and inevitability as darkness came over the Bronx early Wednesday evening. The Yanks led, 6-4, in the seventh and had Jose Contreras on the hill. Contreras had struck out the side in the sixth. The New Yorkers were doing what they always do -- win in October. The Sox were doing what they always do -- lose the last big game of the season. New England parents were prepared to pass the torch to a new generation of children who must learn what their fathers and grandfathers learned all those years ago.

The Red Sox will tease you and take you to the edge, but in the end they are never really different than all the other Sox who have worn the Yawkey Way laundry since 1918.

Suddenly things started to happen. Very un-Sox-like things.

Nomar Garciaparra, snapping out of the worst slump of his life (which including a crushing error in New York's four-run fourth), led off the seventh with a booming shot over Bernie Williams in center. Nomar had a triple and was awarded home when Hideki Matsui's throw to third bounced into the seats.

It was the beginning of the Sox' biggest inning of the season, one in which they would KO Contreras, bat around, score three times, and shift the momentum of the series.

It marked the first time the Sox had scored more than five runs in a postseason game this year. Garciaparra (four hits), David Ortiz (three RBIs), Bill Mueller (three hits), and Kevin Millar (two hits) snapped out of their slumps and Trot Nixon put the exclamation point on the night with a two-run blast into the third deck in right in the ninth inning.

Making victory more delicious, it came at the expense of Contreras, the man in the middle of the 2002-03 bidding war that took the century-old rivalry to a higher level of ridiculousness. It was after the Sox were outbid by the Yankees that Boston CEO Larry Lucchino infuriated George Steinbrenner by characterizing the Yanks as "the Evil Empire." Lucchino had to be chortling from his second-row seat next to the Sox dugout when his sluggers routed Contreras in the seventh.

"You hope it's a clean game and one team wins, as opposed to somebody having to live with a mistake, an error, or something like that," said the ever-measured Yankee manager, Joe Torre. "I don't know of any two clubs that are more evenly matched than we are. It comes down to seven."

Seven. Red Sox and Yankees. With Pedro and the Rocket. Truly the Game of the Century.

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