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Survival test

Sox call on Beckett to keep them alive

CLEVELAND - In his final tuneup before he pitches Game 1 of the World Series next Wednesday night against the Colorado Rockies, Josh Beckett will face the Cleveland Indians. James Taylor is on call to sing the national anthem that night at Fenway Park, and Manny Ramírez, last seen yesterday afternoon doing standup for Japanese TV, will be wired for in-game commentary by Fox.

Or not.

It could also end tonight at Jacobs Field, where the Indians have the momentum, the crowd, and lefthanded ace C.C. Sabathia set to write a much different scenario than the one planned by the Sox. An Indians victory tonight, and that guy with the drum in the top row of the left-field bleachers here will be gonging the Sox right out of October.

The Indians, with two straight wins in the Jake as encores to their 11th-inning win in the Fens last Saturday night, lead the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, 3-1. That historic 86-year drought the Sox ended by winning the World Series in 2004? Well, the Indians can do that one better tonight. They haven't clinched a pennant or won a World Series in their home park in 87 years, since they beat the Brooklyn Robins in Game 7 of the 1920 World Series, Stan Coveleski outdueling the spitballer, Burleigh Grimes, 3-0.

"The last thing you want to do is get ahead of ourselves," said Eric Wedge, the Indians manager whose team already has conquered the Yankees and is now in line to dispatch the two teams whose uniforms he once wore as a player, the Sox and Rockies. "Yeah, we'd love to do it here at home, but the heartbeat and the pace and the way we play, those need to be the same we've been doing all year."

The Sox have some experience, of course, in ALCS elimination games that they'd love to draw upon. Eight players remain from the team that was down, 3-0, to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and won the next four games, the only team in baseball history to overcome such a deficit.

"To say there was a lot of confidence in that room would be a lie," Doug Mirabelli, one of the eight, said of the Sox clubhouse before Game 4 in '04. "But it definitely was a focused clubhouse. Everybody knew what was at stake. Everybody knew going into it how good a team we had. We couldn't believe we were in that situation.

"But all it took was one spark in the fourth game. That's what we're looking for right now: a spark, and a sense of heading in the right direction."

The most logical candidate to provide that spark is Beckett, the 20-game winner who has his own history of comebacks to offer. Beckett was on the 2003 Florida Marlins team that trailed, 3-1, against the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series. Beckett pitched a two-hit shutout to beat Carlos Zambrano in Game 5, the Cubs unraveled in Game 6 when Moises Alou couldn't wrest a foul pop fly from a fan (the infamous "Bartman" game), and Beckett came out of the bullpen on two days' rest and gave the Marlins four innings of one-hit relief in Game 7.

"We're as confident in Josh as anyone," said Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, who hit a home run off Zambrano in that '03 duel. "I don't think there's anyone in the league we prefer on the mound for our team in this situation. So we've got who we want there, and we'll see what happens."

Beckett has won both of his postseason starts this season, shutting out the Angels in Game 1 of the Division Series and beating the Indians easily, 10-3, in Game 1 of the ALCS. He has allowed just two runs in 15 innings, and has struck out 15 without issuing a walk. The other three starters used by the Sox in this series - Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield - have combined to walk 14 batters in 14 innings, a principal reason each pitched just 4 2/3 innings, the first time all season the Sox have gone three straight games in which the starter failed to pitch at least five.

Reports surfaced Tuesday night that Beckett, who came out of Game 1 despite having thrown 80 pitches in six innings, had some back stiffness that may have entered into the team's decision to start Wakefield in Game 4, but pitching coach John Farrell said the decision had been made only for precautionary reasons and he should be 100 percent tonight.

"I don't think for us the Josh thing was even a consideration," Lowell said. "We were going with Wake either way, so it's a nonissue. Hindsight's 20-20, so it's great for the [newspaper] articles, but I don't think it was ever something that was even considered. If it was really considered, we can second-guess all you want."

Two of the Indians' wins have turned on big innings, a seven-run 11th in Game 2's 13-6 decision and a seven-run fifth in Game 4's 7-3 triumph, one in which Wakefield had held the Indians scoreless on one hit through four innings. While the Indians got strong outings from their second-tier starters, Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd, and their bullpen has kept the Sox in shutdown mode (three earned runs in 16 2/3 IP, a 1.62 ERA) since lefthander Rafael Perez gave up back-to-back home runs to Ramírez and Lowell in Game 2, the Sox pen has been knocked around for 11 runs in 15 2/3 innings. The big-inning flameouts, of course, account for most of that damage, with the three-run home run allowed by Manny Delcarmen to the first batter he faced, Jhonny Peralta, breaking open Game 4.

"We've been really comfortable all year with Delcarmen following Wakefield because of the differential, giving hitters such a different look," manager Terry Francona said. "But the pitch to Peralta, he missed by so much that . . . you give [Peralta] credit for having a great swing, but we really missed our spot."

Peralta's home run was preceded by two plays that might have unplugged the Indians before they put a big number on the board. Kevin Youkilis couldn't hold onto a foul pop fly by Asdrubal Cabrera, and Wakefield couldn't handle the liner Cabrera subsequently hit back at him, a ball that easily could have been turned into an inning-ending double play.

"This time of year when you're winning ballgames, balls are going to go your way, calls go your way," Youkilis said. "But I think the biggest thing is the team over there has played better. They've capitalized every time they've had a break."

Francona, who presided over the '04 comeback, said what he remembers was walking into the clubhouse and finding the team watching "Animal House," the frat-boy comedy. "Watching [John] Belushi hit the guy over the head with a guitar," Francona said. "I was thinking it was sort of appropriate."

Yesterday's carefree moment was provided by Ramírez, who unexpectedly held court in front of his clubhouse cubicle, then bounded onto the field for a Japanese TV crew. If there was any anxiety in Mannyworld, he wasn't showing it.

"We're just going to go have fun and play the game," Ramírez said. "That's it. If we go play hard and the thing doesn't come like it's supposed to come, we'll move on. If it doesn't happen, good. We'll come next year and try to do it again."

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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