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Yankees flag down another 1; MVP Hernandez chills Sox, 6-1, to give N.Y. 3rd AL title in 4 years; Torre: 'It's been wild year'; 'Cursed' Boston sets LCS error mark with 11

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOSTON -- The champagne was on ice last night, and the New York Yankees weren't going home without popping the corks. They had no intention of returning to the Bronx with the American League Championship Series still undecided, with Boston's two hottest starters waiting in the wings. The Red Sox wanted to reverse the curse. The Yankees were going to stay the course.

For the third time in four years, it's taken them to the World Series.

Derek Jeter set the tone with a two-run homer, and the Yankees didn't miss a beat after that, making the early lead hold up and securing their 36th trip to the Fall Classic with a 6-1 victory in Game 5 at Fenway Park.

The Yankees will play the first two games of the World Series on the road, beginning Saturday, as they vie for their third championship in four years. They'll take along the record for most wins in the ALCS, eclipsing Oakland's total of 23. They're one short of the LCS record of 25 held by Atlanta, which will try to increase that total tonight and provide the Yankees' opposition this weekend.

The Red Sox couldn't use any controversies as an excuse for their ouster. The umpires weren't a factor, for a change. And a crowd that had turned ugly in Game 4, firing objects from the stands with more accuracy than most of Chuck Knoblauch's throws, was on its good behavior. It's almost as if fans here were braced for another postseason failure and had no frustration to vent.

Good fortune, meanwhile, continues to shine on the Yankees, who seem to have gotten every call, every break, for the past four seasons. Does manager Joe Torre worry that the scales eventually will tip in the other direction, or at least even out?

"How do we know this isn't getting even from early on?" he said. "This may be the evening up for all the bad stuff that happened early on. I don't know."

He didn't care. Drenched in the bubbly, Torre was too busy savoring the moment, and his return to good health. There was a time when he wondered if either would be possible.

"When that whole thing started with prostate cancer in spring training, you really didn't care about baseball. You go through that," he said. "Then when you're going through your recovery, you're not sure if you're going to care when you get back. Once I got back, it was sort of like, let me steady myself. And then all of a sudden my stomach started hurting and I realized that the passion was still there. I'm all the way back as far as the emotion of doing what I'm doing. But it's been a wild year."

The Yankees' hopes of ending the series last night, and assuring they wouldn't have to face Ramon Martinez in Game 6 or brother Pedro in Game 7, were in the sure hands of Orlando Hernandez. In four career postseason starts, Hernandez was 3-0 with a 0.97 ERA. The Red Sox managed two earned runs in eight innings off him in Game 1. Their only chance of inflicting greater damage was if Hernandez couldn't cope with the cold.

He clearly wasn't enjoying it. Looking uncomfortable in the first inning, Hernandez put runners on the corners with none out on singles by Jose Offerman and John Valentin. It was nothing more than an idle threat, as Hernandez retired the next three hitters to preserve a 2-0 lead.

The Red Sox didn't get another hit until Valentin reached with two outs in the fifth. They didn't score until Jason Varitek led off the eighth with a homer. When Nomar Garciaparra followed with a double, on Hernandez's 138th pitch, Torre went to his bullpen with the Yankees ahead 4-1. Boston loaded the bases with one out, but the fifth pitcher of the inning, Ramiro Mendoza, struck out pinch-hitter Scott Hatteberg and retired Trot Nixon on a pop-up.

Mendoza breezed through the ninth after a two-run homer by Jorge Posada removed any doubts. When he got Varitek to fly out, the celebration unfurled on the Fenway Park infield and stretched into the visitor's clubhouse.

"I never thought this beautiful moment could happen to me," Hernandez, who was named series MVP, said through an interpreter. "That trophy belongs to this team and the Cuban people."

For Boston to stay alive, it needed an uncharacteristic performance from left-hander Kent Mercker, who had totaled 5 2/3 innings in two postseason starts this year. Foes were hitting .375 against him. The bridge to the Martinez brothers wasn't very sturdy.

Mercker, who went 3-6 with a 7.76 ERA while pitching for the Orioles in 1996, forced manager Jimy Williams to get his bullpen active just two batters into the game. Knoblauch looped a single to right and Jeter launched a 410-foot homer to center field, the ball slicing through a gusting wind.

"We wanted to score early and give El Duque some breathing room," Jeter said.

The Yankees added two-out hits by Chili Davis and Tino Martinez, and Williams went to the mound. Reliever Bryce Florie stopped warming, but Mercker -- who had fallen behind five of the six hitters he faced -- was allowed to continue. Blowing in his hand between pitches, Mercker struck out Jorge Posada on a 3-2 changeup. It was his 32nd pitch, six more than he needed to complete the first inning of Game 1.

He kept the Yankees still until the fourth, when Williams removed him with the bases loaded and two outs. A run would have scored if Mercker hadn't picked off Martinez after hitting him in the back to open the inning. Instead, Derek Lowe retired Jeter.

Boston got a runner to third with one out in the sixth after a Jeter error, but Garciaparra held up on a fly ball along the right-field line that Paul O'Neill caught before sailing a throw wide of the plate. Brian Daubach bounced to first, and the Yankees were another step closer to the pennant.

They dug in their heels in the seventh by scoring two unearned runs off two Boston errors that increased its LCS-record total to 11. A four-run lead, with Mendoza and untouchable closer Mariano Rivera only a phone call away, was too steep a climb for the Red Sox.

"We really had a fine year," said Williams, whose team stranded 11 (as did New York) and went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. "I told the kids I was really proud of the way they performed. They did a lot for this city. It's a special club for me. They never dropped their heads, they never quit."

As the final out was recorded, the Red Sox, who rallied from an 0-2 deficit to defeat Cleveland in the Division Series, were assured of spending another year hearing about The Curse of the Bambino. Since 1918, the last time they won the World Series, they've been held in its clutches.

Babe Ruth's daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, 82, threw out the ceremonial first pitch last night. Admitting that she was rooting for Boston, Stevens called the curse "mostly a myth."

"But it is a coincidence that there's been many, many, many years since the Red Sox managed to win a World Series," she added. "I think they've had a lot of bad luck, and I'm certainly hoping from here on in they have nothing but good luck."

Nothing that happened in the ALCS would indicate that a change is forthcoming. Same old Red Sox. Same old story. Same empty October feeling.

Deluxe 'El Duque'

On a staff with the likes of David Cone and Roger Clemens, Orlando Hernandez has proved to be the biggest of the Yankees' big-game pitchers this postseason. A look:

D Opp IP H ER Res

10/6 Tex-Gm 1 8 2 0 W 8-0

10/13 Bos-Gm 1 8 7 2 W 4-3

10/18 Bos-Gm 5 7 5 1 W 6-1

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