Red Sox take first step in exorcising curse


BOSTON -- One by one, they will appear. Nomar Garciaparra today. Pedro Martinez tomorrow. And then the ghost of Babe Ruth for the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees.

Why can't the end of an 81-year New England nightmare begin with such a fantasy? Truth was certainly stranger than fiction yesterday in the Boston Red Sox's 9-3 victory over Cleveland in Game 3 of the Division Series.

The Red Sox won behind Ramon Martinez, a pitcher making only his fifth major-league appearance in the past 16 months, and Lou Merloni, a local-boy shortstop who had started only 31 games this season.

They won behind third baseman John Valentin, who crammed into two innings a home run, a run-scoring error and a tiebreaking, bases-loaded double on a 3-2 count with two outs.

And they won behind rookie designated hitter Brian Daubach, who came off the bench to hit a three-run homer that put the game out of the reach after going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in the series.

These are the 1999 Red Sox, a collection that is greater than the sum of its parts.

A group that performs best under dire circumstances. A club adored by its fans for its blue-collar work ethic and old-fashioned team concept.

"We've been through some challenges, some injuries. And there have been other players who have gone out there and performed and done well. And we've won games," manager Jimy Williams said.

"Throughout the course of our regular season, we played a lot of people. We played our whole team with the idea that if you're here, then you're a major-league player, and you're going to play."

Still, yesterday's performance was the best by a "B" team in October since Davey Johnson went with Jeff Reboulet, Lenny Webster and Co. against Seattle's Randy Johnson in the 1997 Division Series.

Garciaparra was out with a right wrist injury. Pedro Martinez was still experiencing discomfort in his back. On a gorgeous fall afternoon, all New England braced for the Olde Towne Teame to meet its usual October fate.

It still figures to happen. Garciaparra is day-to-day. Martinez threw only one minute in the outfield before trainer Rich Zawacki cut him off. If necessary, Boston's Game 5 starter probably would be Bret Saberhagen on three days' rest, or knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

Preposterous? Of course.

But who would have thought that the Indians' loss of Dave Burba after four innings would prove just as deflating as the Red Sox's loss of Martinez at the same juncture of Game 1?

And who would have thought that the Red Sox could extend the series with a journeyman from Framingham, Mass., replacing Garciaparra, the Boston cleanup man and AL batting champion?

The Indians still lead the series two games to one. They've got their ace, Bartolo Colon, starting on three days' rest tonight against left-hander Kent Mercker, who was on the disabled list 16 days ago.

But even if the Indians advance to the ALCS for the third straight season and fourth time in five years, the problems that surfaced yesterday could haunt them as they try to win their first World Series since 1948.

Burba left after experiencing tightness in the underside of his right forearm. Jaret Wright could replace him in the ALCS rotation, with Dwight Gooden or Chris Haney becoming the No. 4 starter. Or, Wright might be dropped entirely after the way he pitched yesterday.

Granted, manager Mike Hargrove stuck too long with Wright, who allowed three runs in his first two innings, then failed to retire the first two hitters in the seventh, leading to a six-run rally.

Still, for all the criticism of the Indians' rotation, their bullpen might be an even bigger question. Ricardo Rincon issued a two-out walk to Jose Offerman before allowing Valentin's two-run double and Daubach's three-run homer. Sean DePaula -- who? -- allowed another run.

The Yankees also aren't as strong as they once were in the middle innings, but their bullpen still would rate an edge over Cleveland's -- their closer, Mariano Rivera, is far superior to the Indians' Mike Jackson.

Of course, the Indians still need to win one more game before they can face the Yankees. And if yesterday proves to be the Red Sox's last victory of the season, it will stand as a testament to their grit and resilience.

Once upon a time, Ramon Martinez was a 20-game winner, a two-time All-Star, a pitcher who both threw a no-hitter and had an 18-strikeout game. He isn't the same after undergoing reconstructive shoulder surgery in June of '98. But there he was yesterday, allowing the Indians only two runs in 5 2/3 innings.

There was Merloni, a player twice demoted to Triple-A this season, starting two rallies. There was Valentin, 0-for-8 in Games 1 and 2, driving in three runs. And there was Daubach, a player who spent eight years in the minors, delivering the biggest blow of all.

Williams started the right-handed hitting Butch Huskey against the right-handed Burba, but in a classic example of Jimy Wocky, inserted the left-handed hitting Daubach once the Indians went to Wright.

"Managerial decision," Williams said.

Daubach struck out in his first at-bat, and only relaxed in his next plate appearance after losing his bat on a follow-through and hitting plate umpire Tim Welke on the side of the head. His home run came one pitch later.

"Mike Stanley told me to make sure I go ahead and swing now after hurting the umpire," Daubach said. "I never did that before. Actually, it made me laugh a little bit, maybe helped ease my mind a little. I was just glad to make contact for the first time in the series."

Curse? What curse?

The Red Sox get to play one more day.

Playoffs today

AL Division Series Cleveland (Colon 18-5) at Boston (Mercker 2-0), 7: 50 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Pub Date: 10/10/99

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