NEW YORK -- The lead is down to a still-comfortable six games, and unless Curt Schilling can offer some vintage Schill this afternoon the way Roger Clemens gave the Yankees some retro Rocket last night, it might be five before the Red Sox head home after their longest trip of the season.
A sweep by the Yankees, a plausible scenario after the Bombers made it two in a row with a 4-3 win last night, might be the least of the Sox' worries, although for fans with a masochistic bent, it may conjure flashbacks of '78, when the Sox also held a seven-game lead with 30 to go and saw it vanish in a span of 10 days.
Of even greater concern to the Sox than watching the Yankees beat their best two pitchers, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett, on successive nights is the absence of Manny Ramírez, who last night was diagnosed with a strained left oblique (side) muscle that is likely to sideline him for "multiple days," in the words of manager Terry Francona.
"That's one of your thunder [sic]," said David Ortiz, who interrupted a Clemens no-hitter in progress with a home run into the third deck with one out in the sixth inning. "So when your cleanup hitter goes down like that, it doesn't matter how much of a lead you have, it's hard to replace a cleanup hitter."
Ramírez, in a rare comment to a media member, was quoted in the Associated Press last night as saying "maybe a week" when asked how long he thought he might be out. "You watch that replay," catcher Jason Varitek said, referring to Ramírez's last at-bat Tuesday night when he aggravated the condition, "he buckles pretty good. We'll have to see. We're not going to panic before it happens."
The Sox were down two players when last night's game began, as outfielder Bobby Kielty was sent for X-rays and an MRI, then sent back to the hotel, his back still too sore to allow him to play even though the tests showed no structural damage, according to the manager. Kielty is listed as day to day, clearly an uncertain candidate to play this afternoon.
"That's not really an excuse," Varitek said. "We've found different ways to win all year. You can't replace Manny in the lineup, but that's no excuse."
Ramirez watched from the dugout, a welcome sight for Alex Rodriguez, whose seventh-inning home run off Beckett, his 44th of the season, gave the Yankees a 4-1 lead and ultimately furnished the margin of victory when Kevin Youkilis countered with a two-run home run off reliever Kyle Farnsworth in the eighth.
"I hope he's out for all of September," Rodriguez said playfully. "That would be great. Manny is a good friend, but it's kind of nice to see him sitting on the bench with a lot of my other good friends."
Some boffo Beckett, who was 9-1 with a 1.90 ERA on the road this season and bidding to add to his major league-leading total of 16 wins, would have gone a long way toward balancing the loss of Ramírez. But while the 45-year-old Clemens, who surprised the Sox by throwing, as Varitek noted, with "more power than we had seen on tape," danced around the five walks he issued by holding the Sox hitless until the sixth, Beckett was buffeted for a career-high 13 hits.
Four of those hits, all singles, plus a walk, came in the second, when the Yankees took a 3-0 lead. In the middle of the rally was Johnny Damon, who beat the Sox with a two-run home run Tuesday night and last night delivered a two-run single in what Varitek acknowledged was a "nice piece of hitting."
"Johnny has been hurt all summer," Ortiz said, "but everybody knows what kind of player Johnny is. Everybody knows Johnny is one player you want up there at the right time."
Beckett still has all the Clemens baseball cards he collected growing up in Spring, Texas, when he was known as "Kid Heat" and yearned to follow in the footsteps of his heroes, fellow Texans Nolan Ryan and the Rocket. "I have several pages of them," Beckett said. "My grandfather has them in a box at home."
Last night, Beckett faced Clemens for the first time, and while the grownup Kid showed as much heart as heat, avoiding major damage despite putting base runners on in every inning, in the end he was no match for the Rocket.
Try as they might, the Yankees could not crack Beckett. He gave up a triple to Hideki Matsui in the third, but struck out Jorge Posada and Jason Giambi to leave him at third. The Yankees loaded the bases in the sixth on three singles, but Beckett retired Damon on a roller to first, just beating Damon in a footrace to the bag.
The last Yankee hit off Beckett was the one that counted most, Rodriguez adding to his MVP résumé by lining a Beckett curveball into the left-field seats.
"He guessed right and hit it," Varitek said. "We knew that. He took a gamble and won that one."
And the Yankees creep ever closer.
"You know, this series doesn't make me worry about things," Ortiz said. "What makes me worry is how we keep on rolling this month. We've got to keep playing. We had a good road trip.
"We all knew what kind of players [the Yankees] are. Even when their guys were struggling, I knew it wasn't going to be like that year round. Dude, they got talent. They got talent all over the place."
And a 45-year-old wonder who somehow turned back the clock one more time.
"I'll tell you what," Ortiz said. "Man, at that age, I'll be cutting grass in my backyard."