Wednesday, October 27, 2004

ST. LOUIS — Get ready, Boston. There’s no other outcome now.

The Red Sox will either win the World Series or add another historic collapse to their legend.

They’ll either reverse the Curse and end 86 years of futility or they’ll fall apart, just as they did the last four times they got this close.

Pedro Martinez made his long-awaited Series debut a special one, bailed out when Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz did as much damage with their arms as bats.

Backed by the surprising show of defense, Boston cruised past St. Louis 4-1 last night for a 3-0 lead and left a crowd that loves its Cardinals booing the home team.

“It is big, but we learned our lesson against the Yankees,” Ramirez said.

Until this October, it was considered almost impossible for any baseball team to recover from such a deficit in the postseason. No one had ever done it — that is, until the Red Sox bounced back to stun New York in the American League Championship Series.

“We’re not going to relax that much,” Martinez said. “I don’t think our team’s going to relax as much as the Yankees were.”

And now, after being only three outs away from getting swept last week, Boston is on the verge of sweeping the club that led the majors in wins this year and claiming the ultimate prize.

Derek Lowe will try to finish it off tonight, with Jason Marquis starting Game 4 for St. Louis.

“It’s something you’ve got to notice. It’s possible,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “Hard not to get discouraged. They didn’t.”

While Red Sox fans gathered around the Boston dugout and chanted “One more win! One more win!” a sign curiously was posted on a side scoreboard at Busch Stadium: “Thanks for a great 2004 season.”

Pitching a day after his 33rd birthday, Martinez threw seven innings of shutout ball, holding the limp Cardinals to three hits and retiring his last 14 batters.

“He has a history of being pretty good,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

Ramirez put Martinez ahead with a first-inning homer and the three-time Cy Young winner held it, helped by superb defense and shaky baserunning. Added up, the Red Sox set a team record with their seventh straight postseason win, bettering the streak of six capped off by Babe Ruth’s win in the 1916 Series.

That Martinez won was hardly amazing. That Boston’s defense contributed was downright shocking.

The Red Sox made eight errors and still won the first two games. This time, they were flawless in the field — and maybe even better than that.

Ramirez threw out Larry Walker at the plate from left field to end the first inning. The lumbering Ortiz, in the lineup because Boston did not have the DH in the National League park, alertly caught losing pitcher Jeff Suppan later.

Combined with a couple of more two-out runs, the Red Sox were home free.

Ramirez was the MVP of the first inning, by far.

After getting some pine tar from the top of his gooey batting helmet, he hit a solo home run with two outs into the loge level in left field. Ramirez was familiar with Suppan, going 7-for-18 with three homers against his former teammate.

But Ramirez’s arm did even more damage to St. Louis in the bottom half.

A pair of walks wrapped around a slow-rolling single by Albert Pujols loaded the bases with one out, and the ballpark hoped for something big.

With the crowd standing and the stadium organ pumping, catcher Jason Varitek made his second trip to the mound to visit Martinez.

Edmonds lofted a fly ball to shallow left and Walker decided to make a run for it, but Ramirez was equal to the challenge and made an accurate throw home. Varitek did his part with a decoy, standing as if there was no play before suddenly catching the ball and slapping on the tag.

Martinez pumped his fist, then gave a nice-try pat on the back to Walker, his old teammate from their Montreal days.

Ahead 1-0, Boston did it again with defense in the third.

Suppan started it with a swinging-bunt single and Edgar Renteria hit a double that sent Nixon sliding feet first into a warning track puddle, a pratfall right out of a Wet&Wild Ride&Slide.

Again the crowd came to its feet, sensing the big hit that St. Louis needed. Walker instead rapped a weak grounder to second baseman Mark Bellhorn, which should have easily been enough to advance the runners and score the tying run.

Suppan, however, made a quick break for the plate and inexplicably stopped while Renteria took off for third. Ortiz caught Bellhorn’s throw, took a second and then noticed the Cardinals’ confusion on the bases.

Ortiz made a perfect throw across the diamond to nail Suppan, and a grounder by Pujols ended the inning and brought out the boos.

Bill Mueller and Nixon hit consecutive doubles with two outs in the fourth, and Boston scored twice in the fifth for a 4-0 lead.

Ramirez singled home a run and Mueller later chased Suppan with an RBI single. At that point, 10 of Boston’s 20 runs in the Series had come with two outs.

St. Louis’ lone run was a homer by Walker off Keith Foulke in the ninth inning.

Notes — Ortiz started 32 games at first base this year. He has a .991 career fielding percentage, and is not known for his range. … St. Louis has given up a first-inning run in 11 of 14 postseason games this year. … Cardinals great Stan Musial threw out the first ball to fellow Hall of Famer Bob Gibson. … Suppan led NL pitchers with a .293 batting average in 2003. He started out this year in an 0-for-43 slump and finished with four hits. He’s added three more in the postseason. … Ramirez tied Reggie Jackson and Mickey Mantle for second all-time with his 18th postseason home run. Bernie Williams leads with 22.

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