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Call of the wild card

Red Sox lose East but a win today will get them in

Subtly, the captain, Derek Jeter, pumped both fists, jogging toward a mound congregation of Yankee teammates, quietly celebrating. Not only a win, but an eighth consecutive division title.

''I don't think everybody [on our team] knew that," said Alex Cora, the Red Sox' utility infielder.

He knew, but only because, earlier in the afternoon, he'd watched the curtain fall on the Indians-White Sox game on a clubhouse TV, his interest three-pronged: He began the season with the Indians, his brother is Chicago's third base coach, and he knew a Cleveland loss would buoy the Sox' playoff hopes.

Yet for some on the Boston bench, in the moments after the Sox' 8-4 loss, confusion hung, like morning fog just before it lifts to reveal startling clarity. Within seconds it did, and the picture that emerged looked like this: The Sox can clinch a playoff spot today and are guaranteed, at the very least, a one-game playoff for the wild card here, at Fenway Park, tomorrow against the Indians.

''What are the odds," Terry Francona mused, ''of us watching the Yankees celebrate and we're coming into the clubhouse as excited as can be about playing the game [today]?"

The scenarios: Beat the Yankees today, and the Sox win the wild card. Lose to the Yankees, and Cleveland must lose at home to Chicago for the Sox to clinch today. However, if the Sox lose and the Indians win, it shall all come down to one additional day, as it did between the Sox and Indians once before, in 1948.

''No offense to anyone in New England," said Sox castaway Alan Embree, sipping champagne in the visiting clubhouse yesterday, ''but we're pulling for the Indians."

Nothing personal, Embree said. The Yankees, simply, would prefer to avoid a third consecutive meeting in the American League Championship Series. The teams, between the beginning of 2003 and the end of the day yesterday, are 35-35 against each other, 28-28 in the regular season, 7-7 in the postseason. The Yankees do have the edge this year, 10-8, which is why they win the division if the teams finish with the same record.

The Yankees did alter their pitching plans for today, inserting Jaret Wright in place of Mike Mussina (who will now start Game 1 of the Yankees' division series Tuesday).

''But they are not going to go, 'Here, win,' " said David Ortiz. ''They are going to play this with their best."

Yesterday, Manny Ramirez's twin 463-foot blasts excepted, the Yankees were the team causing difficulty, most of it for Tim Wakefield. Back on three days' rest, Wakefield's knuckleball lacked its usual deception. He didn't get a swing and miss until his 54th pitch, and so it came as little surprise to see Wakefield attempt to sneak in a fastball in the first.

He did that with Gary Sheffield up, standing almost on top of the plate, the count full (he was going to be swinging), and a man on. Wakefield delivered, and Sheffield rounded the bases. That made it Yankees 3, Red Sox 0.

''This wasn't the Wake, the stuff we had seen, or will see," said Francona, who will roll out Curt Schilling today, and, if needed, Matt Clement tomorrow on three days' rest for the first time in his career. ''It was a very tough situation. He did the best he could."

Wakefield (16-12) has been the Sox' best starter -- there is little debating that point -- but the best he could offer was 81 pitches in five innings, allowing seven runs on seven hits. The Yankees, in fact, didn't leave a runner on base until the eighth inning, by which time they led, 7-3. By the time it was done, every Yankee starter had accounted for either a run batted in or a run scored.

Alex Rodriguez, supporting his MVP case, collected four hits -- two singles, a double, and a homer, his 48th of the season, a towering fifth-inning shot through the light-tower lattice above the Coke bottles. That increased New York's lead to 7-2.

But if there were two decisive junctures in this game, those would have to be the New York second inning and the Boston fifth. (More details on both in a moment.)

The Sox, trailing, 3-0, in the first, answered quickly, closing the gap to 3-2 on Ramirez's 43d homer.

He connected violently, turning on a 95 mile-per-hour Randy Johnson fastball with such ferocity that it left the park quicker than any ball hit out of Fenway this season -- 2.86 seconds, according to home-run-tracking guru Greg Rybarczyk, inventor of Hit Tracker.

Ramirez, before turning that ball into horsehide and string, had a sum of 4 hits in 43 at-bats on 0-and-2 counts this season, and exactly zero home runs. But he jumped on this one, and it seemed to still be climbing as it headed toward Happy Hour at the Cask'n Flagon.

But then came Turning Point No. 1: The Sox didn't sustain momentum. The Yankees began the second with hits -- a Tino Martinez single and Bernie Williams double off Kevin Millar's glove -- and John Flaherty and Jeter followed with sacrifice flies, restoring a three-run lead at 5-2.

Johnson (17-8), meanwhile, became more efficient as the game went on. At one point, to begin the day, he'd allowed as many base runners (six) as he'd recorded outs. But, beginning with the second batter of the third inning, Johnson set down 13 of 14. He was making his pitches and making his own strike zone, his fastball complemented by an excellent slider made even more daunting by creeping shadows between the mound and plate.

That brings us to Turning Point No. 2. The Sox, in the fifth, had Edgar Renteria, Ortiz, and Ramirez coming up. Renteria flied to right on two pitches. Ortiz grounded to first on the first pitch. And Ramirez grounded to third on the second pitch. A five-pitch inning.

''We could have had him out of the game," Damon said. ''After that inning he just gained confidence. He knew he was going to go two more innings."

The Sox, as an organization, preferred the Yankees spend their money on Johnson instead of Carlos Beltran this offseason, given age and injury and the number of years each player has left.

But Johnson, this year at least, went 5-0 in six starts vs. the Sox. He allowed hits (33 in 39 2/3 innings) and home runs (eight) but managed a tidy 3.63 ERA with 44 strikeouts, including three in the second inning yesterday and three more in the sixth.

''That's why they went out and got him," Damon said. ''He's someone who can stop the Red Sox."

Tom Gordon followed Johnson to record the final two outs of the eighth, though not before allowing Ramirez a severe cut at a fastball, which didn't come down until it ricocheted off the back wall just right of the flagpole in center, his 44th of the year.

Mariano Rivera then finished it in the ninth. Jason Varitek led off with broken-bat single before Rivera left him on first. His ERA, in 71 games, is 1.38.

''We're talking about me, Alex for MVP, you look at that guy's numbers, the situations he's faced, what he has done for that team to win the division . . . they wouldn't be there without Mariano," Ortiz said. ''Guaranteed."

For whom would Ortiz cast his vote? ''If I had a vote?" he said. ''I'll tell you [today]. Let me think about it."

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