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Martinez takes the ball -- and the blame

NEW YORK -- In the end, he was El Tiante, game and gallant, but not a winner. Pedro Martinez could not close the deal last night, five outs away from delivering the Red Sox to the World Series.

It will be argued for days, weeks, months, perhaps years afterward that Martinez was done in more by his own manager than by the Yankees. But the reality is that just as with Luis Tiant in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, the Red Sox' best pitcher left his heart on the hill, but was not involved in the ultimate outcome of an epic game that was not decided until an 11th-inning home run by a Yankee defensive replacement, Aaron Boone, at 12:16 a.m.

Ask Sox fans back in February whether they would have taken a three-run lead and Pedro Martinez on the mound in the eighth inning of a Game 7 in the ALCS, and the vote would have been almost unanimous.

But it wasn't enough last night, as Martinez could not hold a 5-2 lead, even after David Ortiz's home run in the top of the eighth seemed to ensure that the Sox would be spraying champagne.

Don't blame Grady Little for sending him out for the eighth inning, Martinez insisted, even though the Sox pen had dominated this series.

"I wouldn't put Grady in a spot," said Martinez, who for long moments after the Sox' 6-5 loss to the Yankees stared blankly in front of him, before resting his forehead on his hands.

"I am the ace of the team. You have to trust me. I wasn't thinking about pitch counts. This was not the time to be thinking about pitch counts.

"There's no reason to blame Grady. He doesn't play the game. We did. I did. If anyone wants to point a finger, point it at me. I gave up the lead. If you want to judge me, curse me for that, I'll take that.

"Make Grady what he is. He did a great job all season. I don't think it's fair to blame Grady."

When Martinez struck out Yankees leadoff man Alfonso Soriano for the fourth time last night, with two on and two out in the seventh inning, his 100th pitch of the evening blazing past Soriano's sodden bat at 94 miles per hour, it appeared his night's work was done. He had been touched for two home runs by Jason Giambi, the first time since April 27 he had allowed two home runs in a game, but the damage had been minimal: Both had come with the bases empty.

He had a 4-2 lead when the seventh was over, and was embraced in the dugout by shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. That lead grew by a run when Ortiz hit the first pitch from David Wells, a fat curveball, into the seats.

But five outs away from that special place New England reserves for its sporting immortals, Martinez faltered after having walked into the most hostile of settings, and taming the Bronx beast. For the second time in six weeks, he failed to hold a three-run lead against the Bombers.

"The fans in Boston right now are sad like we are," Martinez said. "They're heartbroken like we are. But they should be proud of us, because we battled hard. You ask me, even though we lost the game, I never thought we would."

The eighth inning started innocently enough, when Nick Johnson popped to short. But Derek Jeter doubled over the head of Trot Nixon in right on an 0-and-2 pitch, and Bernie Williams lined a 95-m.p.h. fastball into center field for a base hit that brought home Jeter and it was 5-3.

Little jumped out of the dugout and jogged to the mound.

"He asked me if I had enough left in my tank," Martinez said. "I said yes. I never say no. I always want to stay in there. I did what I could. I will refuse to give the ball if you ask me."

And then it ended badly for Martinez. Hideki Matsui lined another 0-and-2 fastball into the right-field corner for a ground-rule double, and Jorge Posada blooped a game-tying, two-run double into center. Only then did Little turn to his pen, and three innings later Boone turned out the lights in New England.

"There's nothing I can say bad about those guys," Martinez said of the Yankees. "I wish them luck against the Marlins."

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