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Sox lack look of champions in opener

Boston falls to Yankees in the Bronx, 9-2

NEW YORK -- Daylight savings time began yesterday. Clocks were turned ahead -- which is just what the Red Sox didn't want. For the first time in 86 years, the Red Sox prefer to look back.

The world champions have been basking in the afterglow of October 2004 for more than five months. They've ridden duck boats through the streets and streams of Boston, cameoed in major motion pictures, done the couch thing with Leno and Letterman, written books, insulted Alex Rodriguez, and absorbed the well-deserved love of a thankful Nation.

Last night they went back to work in the once-haunted, now-hallowed place where they slew the Steinbrenner dragon last fall . . . and it wasn't pretty.

On the most-hyped Opening Night in baseball history, the Yankees spanked the Sox, 9-2, on the strength of 15 hits, plus six innings of five-hit, six-strikeout (five looking) pitching by Hall-of-Fame-bound Randy Johnson, who may prove to be the most important acquisition of the winter of 2004-05.

''Pretty ugly out there," said Johnny Damon, who went 0 for 4 and committed one of the Sox' two errors. ''This is absolutely not the way we wanted to start, especially coming off the busy offseason we all had. It was good to get this first one under our belt. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out as well as we planned."

Sox newcomer David Wells, once the slovenly favorite of the Bronx fans, was roughed up for four runs on 10 hits, a walk and a balk in an inauspicious debut that lasted only 4 1/3 innings. Wells's flop put the Sox bullpen to work early and few Boston fans envisioned the sight of the immortal Blaine Neal toeing the slab for the Red Sox in the sixth inning of the ultra opener.

"I got a couple of pitches up in the zone and they're a good-hitting team," said Wells. "You want to go out and hit your spots and if you don't they make you pay."

The Sox were still clinging to 2004 during pregame preparation. There was new carpet in the visitor's clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and the self-named "idiots" were taking some credit for the re-decoration. Boston ballplayers drenched the rug in champagne after they last played here on Oct. 20, 2004.

"It still smells like champagne in here to me," said Sox first baseman Kevin Millar as he pawed the new blue carpet.

Boston owner Tom Werner, standing in the corridor outside the clubhouse with his date, NBC's Katie Couric, smiled and bragged about the Sox' role in the renovations, then said, "Somehow the ghosts have all evaporated here. It's like night and day. This is the place where we could never get past, but the memories of Game 7 will never be forgotten."

According to Yankees officials, the carpet was replaced in both clubhouses (and auctioned off by Yankee-Steiner Collectibles), but the Red Sox prefer to believe they forced the change with their bubbly overflow after the Game 7 rout completed the greatest comeback in hardball history and vaulted the Sox into the World Series against the Cardinals.

There wasn't a 1918 sign or a photo of the Bambino in the house when the rivals came out for introductions. Heavy booing was reserved for Sox players Curt Schilling, Bronson Arroyo, Damon, Manny Ramirez, and Wells. On the other side, Jason Giambi, a central figure in baseball's steroid scandal, got a nice ovation when he was introduced as the Pinstripes' No. 7 hitter.

There was a moment of silence for the late Pope John Paul II and the Yankee crowd was perfectly respectful, never a given in the Bronx. Hall of Famer Yogi Berra made the ceremonial first ball toss, then it was time.

Damon -- who'll be on with Regis this morning -- started Boston's long-awaited title defense by grounding to second base on a 3-2 pitch. Then Edgar Renteria and Ramirez took called third strikes -- strikeouts No. 4,162 and 4,163 of Johnson's career. The K cards on the Stadium facades featured Johnson as Darth Vader.

The Sox broke through with a run in the second when David Ortiz -- picking up where he left off in October -- led with a double down the right-field line and came around to score on a single by newcomer Jay Payton. The highlight of the inning, however, was a sensational catch by Hideki Matsui (three hits, a homer) that robbed Millar of a home run.

The Yankees got the run back in the bottom of the inning on a sacrifice fly to left, then took a 4-1 lead as Wells struggled.

Derek Jeter led off the three-run third with a double and scored when Gary Sheffield crushed a double into Death Valley in left-center. Sheffield came home on a sharp single up the middle by Matsui to give the Yankees a two-run lead. After hitting Giambi with an 0-2 pitch to load the bases, Wells balked home a run. It was a curious mistake by the 41-year-old veteran. He was up to 57 pitches at the end of three innings and the Sox were in a hole against one of the greatest pitchers of all-time.

The victory snapped Boston's winning streak at eight games and officially put 2004 to bed. Technically speaking, the world champions have the worst record in baseball.

The Yankees, meanwhile, halted the hideous four-game losing streak that crumbled their 2004 campaign and sent them into a long cold winter.

Damon, who stuck the dagger in the heart of the Bronx last October, said, "we were just sloppy." His "Idiot" book tour starts today.

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