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Giving up was never in this group's nature

NEW YORK -- What manner of mettle separates these 2004 Red Sox from the 25 teams that preceded them in spotting adversaries a 3-0 series lead in the postseason, in refusing to go quietly into that good night?

Perhaps, it was suggested yesterday afternoon to Terry Francona before Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, that this series never really had the feel of one club being three games better than the other?

"Oh, no," Francona said, "It was 0-3, that's what it was, and if we didn't come back in the ninth [in Game 4], it was 0-4. The only thing I can think is we didn't stop playing. In that fourth game, our dugout from inning one was `Let's get it done,' -- and it was legit. Not talk, really legit. And it's been that way the whole way through."

It all feels like such a distant memory now, when the Yankees appeared on the way to inflicting the granddaddy of all postseason whuppings on the Sox. An 8-0 Yankee lead in the Bronx in Game 1, when Curt Schilling looked foolish for vowing to shut up 55,000 New Yorkers. Pedro Martinez left dangling from a mango tree in Game 2 by John Olerud's two-run home run. The shock of returning home and being subjected to the humiliation of a 19-8 defeat that had a Fenway Park playoff crowd leaving early for the first time in memory.

The Yankee lineup was hitting with impunity, scoring 32 runs in the first three games and batting .377 collectively. Yankee left fielder Hideki Matsui truly was Godzilla come to life, driving in five runs in two of the first three games and scoring five in Game 3. Sox pitching was worse than anything envisioned by horrormeister Stephen King, with Schilling down to one good ankle and the rest of the staff hobbled by an ERA of 11.52through the first three games.

"I don't know, maybe Game 1 sort of emotionally threw us off off," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said yesterday. "I think everyone here knew or expected that if Curt was healthy, he was going to be dominant, and get us off to a good start. But he had limitations, and put us behind the 8-ball early. That threw us off for a couple of days."

What turned it around?

"Maybe you guys asking all those questions about the offseason before Game 4," Epstein said with a smirk.

With Francona playing grab-bag with his rotation, because Schilling was hurt and penciled-in Game 4 starter Tim Wakefield had been pressed into bullpen duty in the Game 3 blowout, Derek Lowe was given the ball and the Yankees took a 2-0 lead when Alex Rodriguez cleared the Monster with a two-run home run in the third. But two innings later, David Ortiz resumed morphing into the greatest October player the Sox have ever had, hitting a two-run single in a three-run fifth that he would later trump with a walkoff home run in the 12th.

Meanwhile, Yankee closer Mariano Rivera, as perfect in October as anyone in pinstripes has ever been, revealed a mortal side that the Sox had exposed in the regular season -- five blown saves against the Sox since the start of the 2002 regular season -- but 6 for 6 in postseason save chances against the Sox until blowing back-to-back chances in Games 4 and 5. Bill Mueller, whose walkoff home run off Rivera July 24 had begun the Sox reversal of fortune in the regular season, singled home the tying run in the ninth inning of Game 4, Jason Varitek's sacrifice fly tied the score in Game 5, and Ortiz took care of the high drama both nights, with the walkoff home run at 1:22 a.m. Monday and a walkoff, 14th-inning single in Game 5 at 10:59 p.m. the same day.

Rivera's rare lapse was matched by a ferocious effort of Sox closer Keith Foulke, who in the course of three consecutive games would throw 100 pitches and not allow a single run. Foulke in seven games in this postseason entering last night had yet to be scored upon, allowing just three hits in nine innings while holding opposition hitters to a .100 average.

The entire Sox bullpen, with Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo both performing in key cameo roles, turned stingy, allowing just one run in 14 2/3 innings in the two marathon victories. But Foulke set the tone.

"We knew he'd be an excellent closer, but what he's done the last three or four games is almost superhuman,"' Epstein said before last night's game.

The kind of breaks that seemingly never go the Sox way began piling up in startling fashion. What could have been a game-winning, extra-base hit by Tony Clark in the ninth inning of Game 5 hopped over the low right-field barrier for a ground-rule double, forcing the go-ahead run to stop at third. Olerud badly bruised his instep hitting himself with his own bat and was knocked out of the series. The Bucky Dent-type home runs this time was hit by a Red Sox player, Mark Bellhorn, who was batting .150 when he delivered the biggest blow of Game 6, a three-run home run. Two disputed umpiring calls both were resolved in the Sox favor, Bellhorn's home run that struck a spectator and had originally been ruled in play, and an interference play by A-Rod, who had administered a karate chop to Arroyo on a roller to first, an act that embodied the growing Yankee frustration.

And then there was Schilling, the tendon in his ankle re-routed and sutured in what might have been the first procedure of his kind, pitching grittily in Game 6, with blood on his sock and duende in his belly, while the Yankee pitching staff was down to two reliable starters, Mike Mussina and Jon Lieber, neither of whom could win on their second go-round.

The big bats in the Yankee lineup --Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Gary Sheffield, and Matsui, simultaneously went quiet, batting a collective .163 (9 for 55) in the last three games.

The Sox held firm, even in the belly of the beast, even when the Yankees rallied five outs away from a Sox win in Game 6, and threatened in the ninth until Foulke whiffed Clark to strand the tying runs on base.

"I have never felt such intense stress -- ever," Sox owner John W. Henry would report after that game. "With the final out, I was so overcome with relief, I couldn't muster even a silent cheer."

The cheers began rolling in early last night, David Ortiz hitting a two-run home run in the first off Kevin Brown, Johnny Damon hitting a grand slam off Javier Vazquez in the second and adding a two-run shot off Vazquez in the fourth.

Francona likes to say his team's cinematic tastes run to "Animal House." But yesterday, before Game 7, the movie on the clubhouse big screen was "Miracle."

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