October 21, 2004

Red Sox' Anguish and Yankees' Mystique Dissolve in Game 7

They had been reliable caretakers of a cosmic curse, feasting for decades on the gift that kept on giving: Babe Ruth, purchased from the Boston Red Sox in 1920, and all the championship karma he brought with him.

The rules were very simple. The Yankees won and their rivals lost, often painfully, eternal justice for the worst trade in baseball history. The Red Sox still have not won a World Series in 86 years. But they got there last night, playing the Babe's game in the house that he built.

With a barrage of four home runs - all pulled into the right-field seats, where Ruth once took aim - the Red Sox eliminated the Yankees with a 10-3 victory in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium.

The Red Sox became the first team in baseball history to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games, and they will play host to the Houston Astros or the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the World Series at Fenway Park on Saturday. The National League Championship Series is tied, three games apiece, with Game 7 tonight.

For the Yankees, whose $180 million payroll is the highest ever for a baseball team, it was a devastating failure. They had beaten the Red Sox in Game 7 of last October's A.L.C.S., rallying from a three-run deficit to capture an 11-inning thriller. Both teams reloaded in the off-season, and a rematch seemed inevitable.

In Game 4 on Sunday, the Yankees were three outs from a sweep. But Boston came back to win consecutive extra-inning showdowns, then stifled the Yankees behind Curt Schilling on Tuesday.

Last night, Derek Lowe was the pitching star, allowing one hit over six innings despite pitching on two days' rest. And Johnny Damon, the shaggy-haired leadoff man batting .103 through the first six games, slammed two homers and drove in six runs.

The Yankees had done their best to channel their ghosts. Bucky Dent, who homered to slay the Red Sox in 1978, threw the ceremonial first pitch to Yogi Berra. The game was played on Mickey Mantle's birthday. George Steinbrenner, the impatient principal owner, showed up in the clubhouse some six hours before the first pitch, apparently spreading good cheer.

"He was very supportive," Manager Joe Torre said.

The good feelings undoubtedly have passed. Steinbrenner will probably order a reconstruction of the team, which won 101 games during the regular season but folded when it mattered most.

Steinbrenner could pursue Boston's Pedro Martínez, the pending free agent whose relief appearance brought the Yankees their only bit of hope last night.

Martínez took over for the top of the seventh inning with the Red Sox leading by 8-1. The Yankees were trying to pull off the second-biggest comeback in postseason history; in 1929, the Philadelphia A's won Game 4 of the World Series after trailing the Chicago Cubs by eight runs.

The Yankees seemed capable of their own heroics. As the fans screamed, "Who's your daddy?" at Martínez, the Yankees mounted a rally. Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams started the inning with doubles, and Kenny Lofton singled in a run.

But with the lead cut to 8-3, Martínez fanned pinch-hitter John Olerud with his hardest pitch, a 95-mile-an-hour fastball. A flyout by Miguel Cairo ended the excitement, and Mike Timlin came on for the eighth.

Pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra grounded out to second base with men on first and second for the final out.

The Yankees had not lost four games in a row since April; Boston won three of the games in that streak. To some, including catcher Jorge Posada and Torre, the Yankees seemed tight on their way to Game 7.

"There's no question there's tension," Torre said.

After Game 4, Torre and several players spoke confidently, reminding themselves that they were still in control. But one loss followed another, and before last night's game, Torre told his players the obvious: "We have a game to win today."

For that, they turned to Kevin Brown, a veteran mercenary brought in last winter to replace Roger Clemens and unload Jeff Weaver's contract. But Brown never endeared himself to teammates during the season, and he was hammered in Game 3 at Fenway Park.

Brown came out throwing hard, his second pitch a called strike at 94 miles an hour. But Damon singled to left, past third baseman Alex Rodriguez, and he stole second.

Manny Ramirez hit a low line drive under the glove of shortstop Derek Jeter. Damon took a step back to second, unsure if Jeter would catch it, and took off when it went through. Hideki Matsui made a sidearm relay throw to Jeter, who fired home.

Posada had the plate blocked, and the stadium shook when he tagged out Damon. If the Yankees had momentum, Brown could not sustain it. Ortiz ripped his first pitch into the right-field stands for a two-run homer. Ramirez raised his fist as he rounded second on his trot.

Torre could sense trouble three batters into the second inning. With Brown on his way to walking Bill Mueller, Javier Vazquez got loose in the bullpen. After the Mueller walk, the pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre visited the mound. Then Brown walked the No. 9 hitter, Orlando Cabrera.

Torre emerged from the dugout, and when he took the ball from Brown, he did not even pat him on the back. It is the surest sign of Torre's displeasure. Spike Lee stood and cheered for Brown from his seat behind the Yankees' dugout, but almost everyone else booed as he stalked off the field.

They could not have known how quickly the game would turn, though history might have told them. Vazquez had given up two homers to Damon - one on the second pitch, the other on the first - in a game in June. Posada set up outside and Vazquez threw inside, a danger zone to a left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium with the bases loaded.

Damon lifted the pitch in the air. It would have been a flyout almost anywhere else, but the ball carried into the first row of seats for a grand slam. One pitch, four runs, and the Yankees were down by 6-0.

Instantly, it was obvious: this would either be a Red Sox triumph, or the most devastating loss in their history. They kept after Vazquez, determined to make it the former.

Vazquez helped them with a leadoff walk to Cabrera in the fourth. Up came Damon, and his next hit went a little farther than his first.

Hacking at another first pitch, Damon buried a two-run homer into the third deck in right field. A fan in a Red Sox cap ended up with the ball, delighted with his souvenir and his team's 8-1 lead.

Vazquez walked two of the next three hitters, and Torre replaced him with Esteban Loaiza. Vazquez - the pitcher imported to replace Andy Pettitte - had walked five, allowed two homers and gotten only six outs.

Brown? Vazquez? Loaiza? Hitters like Kenny Lofton dribbling weak ground balls off Lowe? The fans might have wondered what happened to their Yankees. Even before the game, Torre said that he was looking for the team that won 101 games in the regular season.

Lowe was happy to take the charity. Facing a tired pitcher and needing base runners, the Yankees swung away. After Damon's grand slam, Matsui grounded out on a 2-0 pitch, and Bernie Williams did the same on a 1-0 pitch.

Through five innings, Lowe allowed one hit - a run-scoring single by Jeter - and threw only 59 pitches. He had to face the top of the order in the sixth, and it did not faze him.

Lowe used 10 pitches, getting harmless groundouts from Jeter and Rodriguez and a strikeout from Gary Sheffield. Lowe spun around and posed on the mound, pumping his fist and holding it in front of him - once, then twice.

It was actually happening. The nerd was kissing the homecoming queen. Paper was beating scissors; scissors were beating rock. Charlie Brown was kicking the football. The Red Sox were beating the Yankees for the American League pennant.

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