In the dead of winter last January, Terry Francona faced the largest crowd of Red Sox fans since he succeeded Grady Little as the franchise's 44th manager. As more than 1,000 diehards applauded him at the annual writers dinner in a sprawling ballroom at the Sheraton Boston, Francona politely thanked his supporters and asked them to remember their affection for him once the season began.
The love waned a bit last night.
In a scene reminiscent of the stunning reversal of fortune in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series last October in the Bronx, Francona sent Pedro Martinez to the mound with a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning after Martinez had thrown 101 pitches to the Yankees. Francona stuck with Martinez after Hideki Matsui launched Martinez's 103d pitch (a 90-mile-
per-hour fastball) into the Sox pen to force a 4-4 deadlock. The manager stood by Martinez after he surrendered a double to the next batter, Bernie Williams, on the 108th pitch of his outing. And Francona relieved Martinez after he allowed a decisive RBI single with one out to Ruben Sierra on his 117th pitch. So it was that the Sox suffered a wrenching 6-4 loss in the opener of a three-game series that, by nearly all accounts, they needed to sweep to achieve their goal of overtaking the Yankees for the division title. The defeat dropped the Sox 5 1/2 games back with nine to play.
"It's definitely going to be tough," said Johnny Damon, whose go-ahead homer in the seventh inning went for naught. "We've got to win out and hope they don't win much more."
The frustrated legions among the 35,022 at Fenway Park turned their anger on Francona. They booed him on his march from the dugout to replace Martinez with Alan Embree. They booed him on the way back, and they booed him after he protested a close play at third later in the inning and replaced Embree with Mike Timlin. They booed Francona louder than he has been booed in 153 games since he succeeded Little.
Francona, who is adept at tuning out the crowd, defended his decisions.
"I wouldn't have left him in if I thought he was out of gas," he said. "I thought he was in command of what he was doing. I thought he deserved to stay out there and actually the reason he stayed out there is because I thought he was going to get them out."
Martinez's line, it turned out, was eerily similar to his line in Game 7, when the Yankees erased a three-run lead against him in the eighth inning, hastening Little's firing. Martinez, who surrendered five runs on 10 hits and a walk in 7 1/3 innings in Game 7, last night allowed five runs on nine hits, two walks, and a hit batsman in, well, 7 1/3 innings.
"How many times am I going to give up a lead?" Martinez said in some of his most self-critical postgame comments in his Sox career. "It's all on me. There's no reason to blame [Francona]."
Among the differences this year was the fact that Martinez generally had fared well in high pitch counts. Unlike last year, when opponents hit .364 against him when he threw 106 pitches or more, batters had mustered only a .222 average on pitches 106 of higher.
Yet Martinez was all but disconsolate.
"I wanted to bury myself on that mound," he said. "What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy."
Martinez once was so defiant in the face of Yankee adversity that he called for summoning the ghost of Babe Ruth so he could drill the Bambino in the butt. But the latest loss seemed to humble him. He dropped to 10-11 with a 3.24 ERA in his career against the Yankees.
"I wish they would disappear and never come back," he said. "I'd like to face any other team right now."
The fans seemed particularly perturbed that Francona had protected his bullpen the night before by keeping Mike Myers in the game longer than usual and using the largely unproven Byung Hyun Kim in the ninth inning of a 9-7 loss to the Orioles to keep his prime relievers ready for last night.
But Francona said he saw no reason to go to the pen to start the eighth. "If I had thought he was losing it, I would have taken him out."
Matsui homered off a pitch Martinez wanted low and away but arrived over the heart of the plate.
"I was frustrated by that pitch," Martinez said. "It was stupid."
Not stupid enough for Francona to yank him with Williams, Jorge Posada, and Sierra due up. Francona indicated he waited for a couple of reasons.
First, "If I run out there after two pitches, it would make it look like I wasn't making a very good decision before the inning," he said. "We put a lot of thought into what we were doing."
Pitching coach Dave Wallace agreed.
"We thought he was throwing the ball well," Wallace said. "He only had  pitches in seven innings. To me, that's not a factor."
Francona's other reason: "I actually liked Pedro's soft stuff against Bernie and Sierra. That's what they hit, I don't think very hard, but it was good enough."
When a reporter asked Wallace if Martinez was gassed after Sierra singled on his 117th pitch, Wallace said, "You mean the one he hit off the end of the bat that blooped in? You guys see more baseball than that. Please, do it justice, that's all I ask."
Timlin, who helped rescue Martinez in the eighth, surrendered an RBI double to Matsui in the ninth inning to make things stickier for the Sox. The Yankees summoned Mariano Rivera to pitch the ninth. And Rivera, who had blown his previous two save opportunities, prevailed despite walking Trot Nixon leading off and surrendering a double to Orlando Cabrera. Rivera escaped by getting Jason Varitek and Bill Mueller to bounce back to the mound, with Varitek's grounder starting a double play.
Varitek, who went 0 for 4 to extend his slump to 4 for 39, dismissed comparisons to Game 7.
"It was totally different circumstances," he said. "It's not on Pedro's shoulders. It's us as a team. There's a lot of things we could have done better as a team."
Before the fall, the Sox and Yankees struggled to a 3-3 standoff until Damon, newly rewarded with a Volvo before the game for winning the 10th Player Award, expressed his thanks by sorching a 95-mile-per-hour fastball from Tom Gordon into the right-field stands for a 4-3 advantage.
All seemed well in Soxville as Damon returned to center field to start the eighth to a raucous ovation. But up came Matsui, and out went the home run, the first harbinger of Martinez's demise.
"I can't find a way to beat them at this point," Martinez said. "You just have to give them credit and say, `Hey, you guys beat me, not my team.' "
Martinez was coming off his first back-to-back losses in more than two years and trying to return to form after an untimely lapse in which the Yankees tagged him for eight runs in five-plus innings last Sunday in a dispiriting, 11-1 loss in the Bronx. He kept the Sox in contention until the eighth against Mike Mussina, who allowed three runs on a two-run homer by Manny Ramirez and a solo shot by Nixon over six innings before he handed off to the Yankee pen.
The only consolation for the Sox was that they continued to rule the wild-card race with an ample lead over the Angels and Rangers.
"This loss hurts," Kevin Millar said. "But the big thing is making the playoffs. We've just got to keep trying to win baseball games. I can't predict the future."