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Haunting blow

After epic collapse, Sox sent home on Boone's 11th-inning homer in heartbreaking Game 7

NEW YORK -- They never knew any better. To these renegade cowboys, Bill Buckner, Jim Burton, and Johnny Pesky were Red Sox alumni. Fraternity bothers, really. Never the ghosts of lost Octobers whose souls they needed desperately to redeem.

Curse, schmurse, sniffed Grady Little's irrepressible marauders. To them, 1946, 1949, 1967, 1975, 1978, and 1986 added up to nothing more than 2003.

And what a year it was -- until Aaron Boone belted Tim Wakefield's first pitch in the 11th inning for a home run to left field to lift the Yankees to a stunning 6-5 victory in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and plunge a dagger into the heart of Boston's dream season.

"I feel like I let everybody down," said a tearful Wakefield, who kept the Sox in the series by earning two of Boston's three victories. "I'm disappointed in the outcome. It hurts, and all I can say is, `I'm sorry.' "

No, Virginia, there will be no tomorrow for the Comeback Cowboys. No wild card World Series. But no one blamed Wakefield, whose lapse came long after Pedro Martinez let a 5-2 lead slip away in the eighth inning.

"He should never hang his head down," Jason Varitek said. "We would never have had this opportunity if he didn't win two games in this series for us."

The archenemy Yankees open the Fall Classic tomorrow against the Florida Marlins, while the Sox shelve their season of destiny and wait till next year -- again. Make that 85 years and counting. But, oh, how this one hurt.

"It's heartbreaking because it's the end for these guys," Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. "They all were part of something special. I don't care whether history reflects it, but they are champions for being part of this team."

This time, the Sox were five outs shy of securing their first World Series berth in 17 years when an eerily familiar hitch developed in the unlikeliest of forms: The Franchise, Martinez.

The Sox ace suddenly lost his magic with one out in the eighth inning and the Sox leading, 5-2, thanks to home runs by Trot Nixon (a two-run shot), Kevin Millar, and David Ortiz, and an unearned run generated by Yankee third baseman Enrique Wilson's throwing error. Martinez, who had outdueled Roger Clemens in the first Game 7 matchup of future Hall of Famers in 73 years, had surrendered only two runs on six hits until then, persevering long after Clemens was routed before retiring a batter in the fourth inning.

Then, boom. Derek Jeter doubled off the Sox ace to the warning track in right.

Bing. Bernie Williams singled home Jeter to make it 5-3.   Continued...

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