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How to explain latest Yankees-Red Sox epic?

When was it that we were all bemoaning the fact that this latest well-hyped confrontation between the Athens and Sparta of baseball (which is which depends on your point of view) was a major dud?

Oh, that’s right. It was 10 hours, 51 minutes, and 26 innings of baseball ago.

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You thought Sunday’s 12-inning 6-4/David Ortiz/Beating Mariano game was an epic? Nah. It was the lounge act to last night’s headliner, a 14-inning masterpiece culminating in yet another game-winning hit by Ortiz, this one a fisted blooper to center after fouling off five nasty Esteban Loaiza two-strike pitches.

It took a postseason record time of 5 hours and 49 minutes for the Red Sox to stagger home with a 5-4 victory that sends this series back to New York for a Game 6 you can be sure Joe Torre never, ever, ever wanted to play. These teams have now played more than 15 hours of baseball in three days. What is this, cricket? This keeps up, we’d better schedule in a break for tea.

``These are two really good teams that really compete,’’ said Sox manager Terry Francona. ``They play with a lot of heart. Fortunately, we were at home, and we won.’’

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The evening began as a pitching confrontation between Pedro Martinez and Mike Mussina. Twelve pitchers later, it turned out to be a scintillating bullpen battle between forgotten Yankee righthander Loaiza and - I stress that no writer is clever enough to make this stuff up - Tim Wakefield, the man who was victimized by Aaron Boone’s Game 7 homer last year.

Wakefield was the winning pitcher after blanking the Yankees for three innings, the most harrowing of which was the truly amazing 13th, when he had to fan the ever-dangerous Ruben Sierra with men on second and third. During this inning, the Yankees didn’t get a hit off the knuckleballer. But since Wakefield was in possession of his A-plus floater, poor Jason Varitek was charged with three passed balls, the first one coming on a strike three to Gary Sheffield. Varitek does not normally catch Wakefield. But these are most assuredly not normal times, even for the Yankees and Red Sox.

Heroes? Got an hour? There was David Ortiz. There was David Ortiz. And there was David Ortiz. The big guy started his team on the way back from a 4-2 seventh-inning deficit when he redirected a Tom Gordon pitch into the Volvo sign atop the Monster Seats. That’s a prodigious poke for a lefthanded batter, by the way. As for his game-winning at-bat, it was downright Boggsian, and it testifies to the type of hitter he has become. For Loaiza was pitching not just well, but downright brilliantly.

``Best stuff he’s had since he’s been with us,’’ said Torre, and that’s no hyperbole. Loaiza made tough pitch after tough pitch, right down to the one Ortiz plopped in front of Bernie Williams to bring home Johnny Damon (who had drawn a one-out walk and moved to second on a Manny Ramirez walk) with the winning run.

Torre had remarked before the game that, ``You could see that Ortiz was a good hitter in Minnesota. But he had holes. Now there are no holes, and he is a lot stronger.’’

Only a sophisticated hitter could have had that at-bat, and only a very strong one could have muscled that particular pitch over the infield (think vintage Jim Rice).

At the other end of the physical spectrum stands Dave Roberts. His game is speed, and for the second night in succession he was summoned as a pinch runner (for the same guy, Kevin Millar), and charged with the responsibility of finding his way around the bases for a vital run. And for the second night in a row he did his job, this time so distracting Gordon that the reliever threw three bad pitches in succession to Trot Nixon, who lined the third to center in the eighth. That put Roberts on third, and Varitek brought him home with the tying run via a sacrifice fly off Mariano Rivera, who thus picked up his second blown save in as many nights.

More heroes? Try the Red Sox bullpen tag-team sextet of Mike Timlin, Keith Foulke, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Myers, Alan Embree, and Wakefield, who combined for eight shutout innings after the Yankees had gone ahead with three runs off Pedro - perhaps we’ll discuss the possibility that this could have been his final appearance in a Boston uniform some other time - Martinez.

Just how surreal was all this bullpen stuff? Myers struck out Hideki Matsui on four pitches. Seriously.

Somewhere in here I should mention the amazing sight of Ortiz being thrown out attempting to steal in the 12th (if it wasn’t a botched hit-and-run with Doug Mientkiewicz, then we really are talking ``Alice in Wonderland’’ stuff here), or the Tony Clark ground-rule double in the ninth that would have brought Sierra home with the go-ahead run if it had stayed in the park (it mysteriously climbed up the short fence, and, no, there was no issue of fan interference). Incidentally, The Yankees left 18 men on base.

I can say without any fear of exaggeration that the Fenway crowd was on its feet for the final six innings, or ever since Ortiz led off the eighth with his nightly blast. The guy is hitting .478 in this series. Thinks he’s Matsui or something.

So the Red Sox are alive. Most baseball teams down, 3-0, get swept (20 of 25). Only two have ever gotten to a sixth game. None have gone farther than that. Curt Schilling will put on his Bill Buckner/Johnny Unitas high-top shoe tonight and make another attempt at shutting up 55,000 people. Should be fun.

Anyway, we done got us a series.

``As I said,’’ reminded Torre, ``each game is a series in itself, and I think, obviously, these last two games have proven that.’’

Another thing the last two games have proven: It’s all true. There really is nothing in baseball to compare with the Yankees and the Red Sox.

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