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Yankees’ Evil Empire fell in a most improbable manner

Red Sox’ comeback from three games down was historic

Joe Torre, left, and the Yankees became the first baseball team to lose a playoff series in which they led by three games.

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Joe Torre, left, and the Yankees became the first baseball team to lose a playoff series in which they led by three games.

They were deader than the Bambino, down three games to none to New York in the American League Championship Series after the worst playoff defeat in franchise history. Thousands of their fans had walked out on them in disgust. Four days later, the resurgent Red Sox had won their first pennant in 18 years with the greatest comeback in baseball history, beating their pinstriped tormentors inside the House That Ruth Built.

”All empires must fall sooner or later,” declared club president Larry Lucchino, after Boston had won the seventh game, 10-3, on the strength of four home runs, including a grand slam by Johnny Damon.

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But nobody expected the Evil Empire, as Lucchino had called it, to topple this way. Not with four straight defeats, the last two at the Stadium. Not after decades of disappointment in games that had decided the pennant -- specifically in 1949, 1978, and 2003. “Last year, we had a bad memory, and I saw a lot of my teammates destroyed,” said series MVP David Ortiz, who kept his mates alive with two game-winning hits in the same calendar day.

The 11th-inning loss in Game 7 of the 2003 series was still fresh when the Sox arrived in the Bronx for the opener, with the New York tabloids eager to remind the visitors that the Yankees were their daddies. “Father’s Day,” proclaimed the Daily News.

When New York battered sore-ankled Curt Schilling and took an 8-0 lead amid six perfect innings from Mike Mussina, it seemed that nothing had changed since the previous October. But when Boston stormed back to within 8-7 before falling, 10-7, the Yankees sensed they’d be in for a grinder.

”They might be joking around all the time, but that team is no joke,” said center fielder Bernie Williams, after manager Joe Torre had to summon closer Mariano Rivera, who’d returned that evening from Panama from the funeral of two relatives who died in a pool accident at his home. “They can come back with the best of them.”

Boston had come from two games down to win Division Series against Cleveland in 1999 and Oakland in 2003 and the Championship Series against Anaheim in 1986. But after dropping Game 2 by a 3-1 count on John Olerud’s two-run homer off Pedro Martinez and Game 3 by a dispiriting 19-8, the Sox seemed threadbare beyond repair.

”To get destroyed like this when it’s crunch time and have a football score up there at the end of the game, it’s definitely embarrassing,” said pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who gave up six runs in the first two innings plus.

Yet the Sox redeemed themselves by coming off the floor and producing consecutive extra-inning victories that seemed impossible in the wake of their Game 3 flogging.

”Don’t let us win tonight,” first baseman Kevin Millar warned the Yankees on the eve of Game 4. “This is a big game. They’ve got to win because if we win, we’ve got Pedro coming back and then Schilling will pitch Game 6 and then you can take that fraud stuff and put it to bed. Don’t let the Red Sox win this game.”

The Yankees shouldn’t have, not with a 4-3 lead going into the ninth inning and Rivera with the ball in his hand. “Any team in baseball would like Mo on the mound with a lead in the ninth,” mused captain Derek Jeter.

But when Rivera walked leadoff man Millar and pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second, the whole series turned around. Bill Mueller’s single sent the game into extra innings and Ortiz (”Who’s Your Papi?”) won it, 6-4, with a walkoff homer off Paul Quantrill in the 12th.

That was merely a prelude to the next night, when Boston rallied from two runs down in the eighth to win, 5-4, in the 14th, as six relievers held New York scoreless for the final eight innings.

”I might be in sort of a haze,” conceded general manager Theo Epstein, after Ortiz, who’d homered off Tom Gordon to lead off the eighth, had knocked in Damon with the winning run. “But I think that was one of the greatest games ever played, if not the greatest.”

Still, the Sox needed to win twice in New York, with one pitcher hurling on a stitched-together ankle and another whose previous Stadium outing had been a disaster. But when Schilling held the Yankees to one run in seven innings in Game 6 and Mark Bellhorn hit a three-run opposite-field homer for a 4-2 triumph, anything seemed possible. “We have a chance to shock the United States of America,” crowed Millar.

No team down, 3-0, ever had managed to even get to a seventh game. But as soon as Ortiz, the brawny Samson among his long-haired comrades, crashed a two-run homer off Kevin Brown in the first inning, the Sox seemed destined to do what no club before them had -- beat New York in a winner-take-all game for the pennant. “We stuck together,” said Damon, whose grand slam off Javier Vazquez in the second was the killer blow. “And we erased history.”

Derek Lowe, who’d lasted fewer than two innings on the same hill in September, baffled the Yankees for six this time, allowing only one run on two days’ rest. By the time he departed, Boston was already up, 8-1, and cruising. After Ruben Sierra grounded to second for the final out, the Sox came leaping for joy onto the Stadium turf.

”That’s for the ‘03 team, just like it’s for the ‘78 and ‘49 teams,” proclaimed Epstein, after the Sox had drenched each other with long-deferred champagne on George Steinbrenner’s carpeted floor. “I hope Ted Williams is having a cocktail upstairs.”

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