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Posted: Thursday October 21, 2004 1:19AM; Updated: Thursday October 21, 2004 1:19AM

10 3
Johnny Damon more than made up for being thrown out at the plate in the first inning.

By John Donovan,

Turning Point
Mired in a slump at the absolute worst of times, Red Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon decided to get aggressive in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday night. And the Sox followed their leadoff man's lead right into the World Series.

A first-inning single, grounded through the left side of the infield on the sixth pitch of the game, was a clear harbinger for the Sox. Damon stole second and, an out later, made a foolish dash to home on Manny Ramirez's hard single to left-center. Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui quickly got the ball to shortstop Derek Jeter, whose relay to home nailed Damon for an easy out.

Still, the message was sent: The Sox weren't going to wait for things to happen.

David Ortiz certainly didn't. He hit the next Kevin Brown pitch deep to right for a two-run homer. And in the second inning, with the bases loaded after a couple of walks and a single, Damon took a first-pitch fastball from reliever Javier Vazquez, low-and-in, turned on it and sent it a couple of rows into the seats in right for a grand slam and a 6-0 Red Sox lead.

Damon's second homer of the night -- a two-run homer into the upper deck in right in the fourth inning -- was on a first-pitch fastball, too, and Mark Bellhorn's shot in the eighth also came on the first pitch.

From the Bench
Terry Francona's decision to use Pedro Martinez in relief of starter Derek Lowe was not the smartest move the Red Sox manager ever made. In fact, in Boston, they spent the seventh inning poking Terry dolls with long, sharp needles. The move didn't work in the short run -- Martinez gave up three hits and two runs and the crowd at Yankee Stadium finally got back into the scream of things -- and in the long run, it might have done some damage to Martinez and the team's faith in him. ... Francona didn't have to do a lot of managing on Wednesday. Damon's hitting and a solid start by Lowe took care of that. Still, before the game, Francona juggled his lineup again, putting Mark Bellhorn back in the No. 2 hole, dropping Orlando Cabrera (who had been hitting .340) back down and sliding Jason Varitek into the No. 5 hole. Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller also moved down in the shuffle. ... Yankees skipper Joe Torre also made a lineup change. Looking for some speed, Torre put Kenny Lofton in as a designated hitter in the place of Ruben Sierra. He singled in against Martinez in the seventh and stole a base but was stranded there. ... Torre wasted no time in pulling Brown, who has mightily disappointed the Yankees this season. The big right-hander was gone after only 1 1/3 innings. He faced only nine batters and threw only 44 pitches, giving up four hits, five runs, two walks and the key first-inning homer to David Ortiz. After his self-destructive temper tantrum late in the season and his non-performance in the postseason, the volatile Brown has a lot to make up for next season.

Clubhouse Confidential
Francona said through the champagne in the Sox clubhouse that once he got Martinez up to warm up, he had to use him or sit him for good. And, because Martinez had offered to pitch, he decided to use him. Plus, Francona said, the righty had good stuff. ... Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, as he does after all series losses, showed up in the somber New York clubhouse to face the press after the game. He had not talked to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner since the loss, but talked to him in the middle of the debacle. It couldn't have been a very pleasant conversation. ... Over in the visiting clubhouse, reliever Mike Timlin poured some of the bubbly on Francona's bald pate. "He messed up my part," Francona said.

Bottom Line
The better team won. Even the Yankees had to admit that. The Red Sox made it a little harder on themselves than they should have -- getting down 0-3 and coming back is not for the weak of stomach -- but superior pitching and superior hitting should win every time. It just took a little longer in this series.

The turning point in these seven games had to be the ninth inning of Game 4. Three outs away from elimination, the Sox scraped out a run against Mariano Rivera when Kevin Millar walked to open the inning, pinch hitter Dave Roberts stole second and Bill Mueller knocked him in with a single up the middle. The Sox won it in the 12th on David Ortiz's walkoff home run -- this a night after being embarrassed by the Yanks, 19-8.

Red Sox heroes were all over the place. Ortiz, with his back-to-back game-winning hits. Damon with his Game 7 home runs. The Sox bullpen, practically unhittable over the past four games.

And, of course, the gimpy Curt Schilling, who stitched up his unstable right ankle and pitched a beauty in Game 6 for the win.

Now the Sox get a couple of days of rest to get their pitchers in order before meeting the National League winner, the Astros or Cardinals, on Saturday in Game 1 of the World Series. It will be the first World Series game in Fenway Park since Oct. 23, 1986.

Boston may never be the same.

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