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Playoff chase heads for home

BALTIMORE -- The sweep of the Orioles accomplished, the road portion of the schedule completed, they're coming home.

Home, where the air is redolent of Fenway Franks, Legal's chowder, and Sam Adams beer.

Home, where Molly Walsh answers the phone, and Joe Silva and Mike Chester park the players' cars, and Joe Flanagan, the retired cop, stands guard at the clubhouse door, and the widowed but still-smiling Johnny Pesky, who turns 86 tomorrow, sits just inside.

Home, where Dave Mellor manicures the lushest lawn you'll ever see, and Andrew Crosby places the bats in the bat rack, and Luke Ansty prepares the players' postgame spread, and Bob Levin checks the reporters' passes.

Home, where David Ortiz pops some reggaetron into his car stereo (''Daddy Yankee," we kid you not, is a reggaetron star) for the ride to the ballpark, and Doug Mirabelli, without fail, stops at Starbucks for a grande nonfat latte.

Home, where Manny Ramirez spends his nights at the Ritz and Curt Schilling sleeps in his own bed in Medfield.

''It's going be good, bro," Ortiz said. ''I like being home."

Home, where Carl Beane tells you to rise and stretch, and Josh Kantor plays some lilting bars on his organ, and ''Sweet Caroline" is sung in the eighth, and Bob Tomaselli, his hair as long as it was when he was a teenager, operates his TV camera beside the home dugout, and Jerry Kapstein, the most familiar face you don't know, sits behind home plate, night after night, in his light blue windbreaker.

Home, the place with the Monster Seats and the El Tiante sandwiches and the fans already camped out on Yawkey Way for standing-room tickets.

Home, where the familiar and the routine converge with the special and the rare to create an atmosphere perhaps like no other.

''It's pretty magical," Johnny Damon said yesterday. ''The fact is, you go out there and play hard and the fans always respect that, they cheer you. They welcome the Red Sox into their homes every single night. You just don't do that. Boston fans, from kids to grandparents and housewives, we're a part of their family. That they welcome us like that is pretty awesome."

Home, where the Red Sox have the best record in baseball (50-24) and a chance to determine their own destiny, tied with the Yankees with seven games to play, with the Indians just a half-game ahead in the wild-card race. The Sox are home for their final seven, the Yankees on the road, with the Bombers arriving Friday for the final three.

''We have a lot of business to tend to," manager Terry Francona said after the Sox took care of the Orioles, 9-3. ''At home, we hope to be a force. We have been, and we expect to. Go play tomorrow."

In seven days, perhaps we will hear echoes of Ned Martin in 1967.

''The pitch is looped toward shortstop. Petrocelli's back. He's got it! The Red Sox win! And there's pandemonium on the field. Listen!"In seven days, as in 1978, perhaps we will require one more game than the schedule stipulated, only this time, a coin flip has determined that if there is to be a one-game playoff with the Yankees (and dare we say, another Bucky Dent), it will be in the Bronx, a week from today.

But this week the Sox are home, the place where in '78, in order to force that playoff, the Sox won their last six games, the Eck throwing two shutouts and El Tiante winning twice as well, while Cleveland's Rick Waits beat the Yankees on the season's final day.

Home, where in '67, Yaz went 7 for 8 on the last weekend and Gentleman Jim Lonborg bunted for a hit and won his 22d game in the clincher, the champagne waiting until the clubhouse radio brought the news that the Tigers had lost.

Home, where Bruno made his sliding catch at the right-field line on the final night in '90, the same year when Walpole Joe Morgan placed the biggest game of the year in the hands of a 29-year-old journeyman named Jeff Stone, who didn't have an at-bat the entire year, and Stone delivered a game-winning hit. ''I'm numb," Stone said afterward. ''I'm on cloud 10."

Home, where on Sept. 23, 2003, Todd Walker hit a three-run home run with two out in the bottom of the ninth and Big Papi won it with a walkoff in the 10th, and two nights later, when they'd won the wild card outright, Kevin Millar, Gabe Kapler, Derek Lowe, Lou Merloni, and Tim Wakefield, still in their baseball pants, ran a block to the Baseball Tavern and poured beers for the celebrating fans.

''I don't want to be generic, but I think the whole experience, all that stuff matters," Mirabelli said. ''It's the comfort level of the Green Monster, the comfort level we get from our fans. All that plays into a confidence for us, for myself, especially."

Home, where in April, they passed out World Series rings and the heroes from Iraq marched onto the field and Wakefield pitched and won, against the Yankees, in his first home-opening start.

Home, where in May, Millar and Jason Varitek hit walkoff home runs in back-to-back games to beat the Athletics.

Home, where in June, Edgar Renteria dropped a daring two-out bunt and Ortiz followed with a walkoff home run off B.J. Ryan of the Orioles, the toughest lefthanded closer in the league.

Home, where in July, just minutes after the trading deadline had passed, Ramirez came off the bench and hit a game-winning single while Fenway shook louder than it has all season.

Home, where in August, the Sox spotted the Royals a 5-0 lead but came back to win, Varitek hitting his first career grand slam.

Home, where in September, Big Papi reprised his playoff-winning home run off Scot Shields of the Angels, the ''MVP" chants resounding from foul pole to foul pole.

''The atmosphere, I mean, I just think it's hard for teams to close us out late in games," Bronson Arroyo said. ''The energy is so hyped. It's harder for pitchers to come in and go seven, eight strong innings and give up just one or two runs without giving us a chance to break something open late in the game.

''It's completely different here. I don't know why, but for me I think it's because everything is in such close proximity. I don't think pitchers are real comfortable pitching with the Monster there and the short right field. And the fact the fans are right on top of you makes the game a little different than in other ballparks.

''An advantage? Hopefully it will be. It has been for the last two years."

Home, where Mike Timlin is 4-0, David Wells 7-3, Wakefield 9-3, Matt Clement 8-4, Arroyo 7-3.

''The best part for me is just the electricity," Mike Myers said. ''I get a charge every time I walk out through the tunnel right before the game. The crowd is starting to fill in, I'm usually in the tunnel 15 minutes beforehand. You look at the Wall, you see the other games up there that haven't been played yet . . . that initial walkout is as good as it gets, without a doubt.

''You still have the old ballpark feel. Even though they've painted everything, it still looks like old paint. The whole atmosphere, for a person who enjoys baseball history, it's exciting on a daily basis. I never get tired of it.

''One week left, we're tied with the Yankees, Cleveland's a half-game ahead, from the perspective of a fan and as a player, this is fun stuff."

Home. No better place to be.

''Let's hope so," Damon said. ''We've still got to play well."

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