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Eve of playoffs is full of suspense for Sox

BALTIMORE -- Giving new meaning to an old baseball expression, gopher ball, the Red Sox remained in the dark last night about their first-round playoff opponent, in part because the Indians-Twins game was suspended going into the 12th inning to make room for a Minnesota Golden Gophers college football game.

A Twins loss in either of their final two games today, and the Sox would be certain of traveling to the West Coast to play the Anaheim Angels, who yesterday eliminated the A's with a 5-4 win over Oakland. If the Twins win both the suspended game and today's scheduled finale, and Anaheim also wins, which would leave the teams tied with 93-69 records, the Sox still would go to Anaheim, because the Angels won their head-to-head series against the Twins.

But because the Twins share the Metrodome with the University of Minnesota, and with the Indians and Twins tied, 5-5, after 11 innings, play was suspended so that the stadium could be cleared for the football game.

That Major League Baseball, with all its billions, could allow a college football game to force stoppage of play in such an important game almost defies belief. How did Red Sox manager Terry Francona take to being held hostage by a football game? Francona looked over at general manager Theo Epstein, who was standing in a doorway of his office.

"Theo is going over to the ESPN Zone and play that gopher game and beat the [stuffings] out of it," Francona said with a laugh.

After 161 games, including 7-5 wins over the Orioles in both ends of a doubleheader yesterday, the Sox found themselves as dependent on Jack McCormick, the team's traveling secretary, as they are on Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, or Trot Nixon, the last of whom played Game 2 after returning from being with his wife, Kathyrn, for the birth of their second son Friday in Boston.

"This is going to come down to Jack," said Francona, whose team jumped to a 6-0 lead in Game 1 and rallied from a 5-1 deficit in Game 2, the comeback triggered by Orlando Cabrera's three-run homer in the sixth and Mark Bellhorn's RBI single and Doug Mientkiewicz's tie-breaking two-run triple in the seventh. "If he can't handle it, we're in trouble.

"But we're going somewhere. The clubhouse guy here has good food, and we know we're going somewhere."

The Sox, who have a chance to match the 99 wins of the '78 Sox after Byung Hyun Kim came out of the pen in Game 2 and was credited with his first win since April 29, are scheduled to wrap up the regular season this afternoon against the Orioles. But they plan to delay their departure until at least 6:30 p.m., Francona said, because that will allow them greater leverage in their flight plans. "I've got hotels, buses, and trucks in three cities," McCormick said, "not to mention planes. I think I'm going to roll the dice and head for Anaheim. Head west, and if we have to turn, we will."

Regardless of the setting, the Division Series is scheduled to begin Tuesday afternoon with Schilling taking the ball for the Sox. "It's interesting," said Francona, whose laptop computer is loaded with data about both potential first-round matchups, "but it beats going home.

"I was with Oakland last year, and Ken Macha is one of my best friends in the world," Francona said. "My heart goes out to him and them. But what Anaheim did . . . talk about somebody with their backs up against the wall. They certainly did fight back. What they did was pretty amazing."

Mientkiewicz, the former Twin who had a hit in each game of the doubleheader after coming in with a .158 average (6 of 32) in his previous 22 games, said he could recall a couple of other instances when the Twins had to defer to the Gophers. "That's what happens when you have too many people in one place," Mientkiewicz said with a shrug. "There's nothing you could do about it."

But Mientkiewicz, who played for the Twins in the playoffs in both 2001 and 2002, offered a couple of reasons why the Sox might prefer to go to Anaheim, and neither had to do with Disneyland. "You're sitting on the bench, you have to completely scream to talk to the guy sitting next to you," said Mientkiewicz, describing the wall of noise that descends upon the players in a sold-out Metrodome hyped up to a postseason frenzy. "You put your helmet on, there's nothing but a high-pitch ringing in your ears.

"It's just ridiculous, unreal. It's just a great atmosphere. It was more so in '02. Last year against the Yankees, they kind of took the crowd out of it. We didn't give them much to cheer about.

"But I feel the turf definitely got us a win [vs. Oakland] in '02, both offensively and defensively. There's definitely a home-field advantage. The roof itself, we're lucky no one has gotten seriously hurt in a playoff game, because you can't see, and you can't hear anybody. You have to use hand signals, and know what the guy next to you is capable of doing."

On the other hand, Mientkiewicz knows first-hand what it's like to play the Angels in October. Anaheim eliminated the Twins in the ALCS in 2002.

"That team is sick in the playoffs," he said. "Their pitching and bullpen are solid, and they have a lot of ways they can beat you with the homer, and they can beat you with small ball, too. And defensively, they make the plays."

But for at least one day, the Sox had to await their fate. A kickoff beckoned.

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