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More than a ghost of a chance

Red Sox fans may be haunted by past, but team seems OK, leading by 5 1/2 after 10-1 rout of Yankees.

September 16, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON -- You wouldn't want to play poker with Terry Francona. Not based on the way he runs his baseball team.

When the Red Sox manager strode glum faced into his postgame news conference after Saturday's 10-1 rout of the Yankees, you couldn't tell whether his team was 5 1/2 games up in the standings or 5 1/2 games back.

Nor could you tell from the reaction of the pessimistic Fenway Faithful, who have come to demand the best while expecting the worst. So while the Red Sox really do have a 5 1/2 -game division lead -- and the best record in baseball, which leaves them all but assured of their first division title in more than a decade -- none of that seems to matter in Boston, where epic collapses have become such a fabric of Red Sox lore that they're actually anticipated.

"The angst isn't gone," said Boston Herald baseball writer Michael Silverman, who has spent 19 of the last 20 years in Boston. "People are freaking out."

Like the 20-something man in a Red Sox cap and T-shirt who stood outside Fenway Park shouting obscenities at no one in particular as Boston blew a five-run lead to the Yankees on Friday. Or the fan who wrote the Boston Globe complaining of "a frustrating season" while wondering whether Boston will be able to hold off Detroit in the wild-card race -- never mind the fact the Red Sox lead the Tigers by eight games with just 13 left to play.

It may have taken the Red Sox 86 years to win a World Series but it seems to have taken less than three seasons for the city to forget about that.

"I think the media provides the angst. I don't think we in the clubhouse feel it," said third baseman Mike Lowell, who drove in two runs Saturday to give him a share of the team lead with 106 runs batted in. "Do we want to win? Sure. Despite our division lead, I think the big picture is we want to be playing well going into the playoffs."

But then even the ultra-positive Lowell, in a nod to the Curse of the Bambino and other ghosts hanging around Fenway, quickly backtracked, refusing to take a playoff berth for granted even as he lauded his team.

"We want to make the playoffs," he corrected. "We have the best record in baseball. That's pretty good."

So is their advantage in the American League East. After giving up a five-run lead in the span of two outs to lose Friday's series opener with New York -- the biggest lead they've blown in more than two years -- the Red Sox rebounded Saturday behind their Cy Young Award candidate. Josh Beckett became baseball's first 19-game winner by giving up a run and three hits in seven innings of a game that included two hit batters, an umpire's warning to both benches and a vicious home-plate collision that saw Boston's 235-pound Eric Hinske flatten 190-pound Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, sending him to the hospital with a ringing headache.

Clearly, the Red Sox aren't taking their big lead for granted.

"No, we have to focus on continuing to play good baseball," said Red Sox captain Jason Varitek. "It doesn't matter what the circumstances are. We have to focus on our team and us."

Even if the Yankees win tonight's series finale they would enter the season's final 14 days 4 1/2 games behind Boston -- a half-game worse than they were four weeks ago. Among division leaders, only the Angels enjoy a bigger advantage.

The Red Sox, who have led the division since April 18 -- their longest uninterrupted streak in first place since 1946 -- became the first team in baseball to 90 wins and matched a season high by going 31 games over .500. Their magic number to clinch the division title is nine. And they're about to get better with slugger Manny Ramirez (.292, 20 homers, 86 RBIs) expected back in the next few days after missing three weeks with a strained oblique muscle.

"I don't think the guys here feel any angst," Lowell said. "Players have to be able to separate what's perception and what's reality."

Perception says the Red Sox have slumped since the All-Star break. Reality, however, says only the Yankees have won more games or scored more runs than Boston in the second half. And even New York hasn't been able to keep pace with the league-leading Red Sox pitching staff, which has a .597 winning percentage since mid-July.

So relax, Boston.

"We're just trying to play good baseball," said Beckett, 19-6 with a 3.20 earned-run average. "Everything else will work itself out."


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