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Upon the fabled leftfield wall at Boston's Fenway Park is a tote board that daily measures New England's collective apprehension. The board is regarded everywhere else as an enormous version of the American League East standings, at the top of which the Red Sox have stood each day since April 18. However, given the pathology of rooting for the Sox, the tally is as much a large-type reminder of how much Boston has to lose as how much it has gained.
With an achy right knee and an equally balky left shoulder, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz pointed to the big board last Friday morning before the start of a four-game series with the Los Angeles Angels and, without specifically mentioning They Who Must Not Be Named, said, "Those suckers are smokin' hot, and they're coming after us." Ortiz was speaking, of course, of the second-place New York Yankees. "They don't want the wild card. They want us. That's why I have to be in the lineup every day."
On May 29 the big board showed Boston up by 14 1/2 games on New York, thereby casting Boston in a role as awkward to the Sox as Hamlet might be to Pauly Shore: prohibitive front-runner. Sure enough, with New York playing .711 ball since the All-Star break (27-11) and the lead sliced to four games with 38 to play at week's end, the Sox face a historic finish no matter what happens. Either they suffer the second-biggest collapse in baseball history (the 1914 New York Giants blew a 15-game lead on the Boston Braves) and thus eclipse the ignominy of the 1978 Sox, who squandered a 14-game lead over New York, or they win their first division title since 1995 and their first in a full season since 1990. "First place," says Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, "would be significant to our fans and our organization. Yes, because of how we've played this year, we prefer to get in the front door as opposed to the back door."
Only in Boston could the best record (74-50) in baseball at week's end invoke anxiety. Though the Sox did win the 2004 World Series as a wild-card entrant, they have held first place on May 30 or later in each of the past eight seasons and lost the division every time to the Yankees--including 2005, when the Sox Heimliched what was a five-game lead on Aug. 13. "This team is more balanced and has much better depth than that one," counters general manager Theo Epstein.
Against the Angels, the club with the majors' second-best record, Boston played as if this year's lead had staying power. Though the Sox split the four games, last Saturday night's was one of those clip-and-save victories that make for championship seasons. Boston had lost painfully the previous night, 7-5 in the latter half of a day-night doubleheader, thanks to the third blown lead in seven appearances by Eric Gagné since his acquisition from the Texas Rangers just before the July 31 trading deadline.
Rather than turning to Gagné and his poorly located 92-mph fastballs (he'd given up 14 earned runs and 25 base runners over his past 10 innings), the Sox might have been better served by calling on the fan who chucked a half-full water bottle at Gagné from the field-level stands down the leftfield line after the righthanded reliever gave up three runs in the ninth. The bottle bounced over the mound in front of a stunned Gagné. (The fan was tackled by a security guard and arrested.) Gagné was booed off the mound and refused to face reporters after the game or the next day.
Gagné's teammates, however, seemed less troubled by the loss. Backup first baseman Eric Hinske, for instance, figured Saturday was a good day to ask the clubhouse barber for a Mohawk haircut. Centerfielder Coco Crisp showed up wearing a green trucker's hat, lime-green T-shirt, green belt and white sneakers with green plaid accents. "Whoever wears green today, good luck will be bestowed upon him," Crisp explained.
And where, someone wondered, had he heard such a thing?
"My psychic," he replied earnestly. "Man, look at me. I should be batting fourth."
Even when the Sox fell behind 5-0 against Jered Weaver in the fifth inning--and knowing New York had won again that afternoon against the Detroit Tigers--they played it cool. In the bottom of the fifth the first six batters scored, the last four on a mammoth grand slam by Ortiz. Boston went on to a 10-5 win, matching their biggest comeback of the season. (The karmic Crisp, batting eighth, provided a double in the rally and ran down eight fly balls.)