It all comes down to this

Dan Wetzel

NEW YORK - As last Saturday Night turned to Sunday Morning in Boston, as the New York Yankees turned Fenway Park into a nine-inning batting practice, you could hardly blame Red Sox fans for emptying the place by the eighth inning and turning their attention to the New England Patriots.

The ALCS was turning into a rout, an embarrassment, a punch to the stomach after so much promise, after so much potential. New York was up 3-0 and Boston seemed down for the off-season count.

Three nights, 201 miles and 180 degrees later and here came the beer bottles and frustration from the upper deck of Yankee Stadium. Here was another umpire call going, get this, Boston's way (correctly), and here was another game following right along.

The roller coaster that has been this playoff series, this rivalry, was making its most dramatic turn and setting up for its wildest, most unpredictable finish.

Boston and New York play for the pennant Wednesday (8 p.m.) in Game 7 of a most unlikely ALCS.

In a way it has played out fittingly. If Boston is to finally vanquish New York and get in position to win its first World Series in 86 years, then what better way than becoming the first team in baseball history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit?

What better way to put the words collapse and choke into New York's vocabulary?

"I guess it was supposed to come to Game 7," said Yankee manager Joe Torre. "We'll see what happens."

If the first six games of this series are any indication, then what we'll see Wednesday will be good business for defibrillator salesmen and psychiatrists throughout the Northeast.

Five of the six games thus far have come down to the last inning. There have been comebacks, blown leads, blown saves, dramatic performances, controversial calls, brilliant plays, foolish decisions and then some.

On Wednesday, two teams with a combined $330 million in pay roll will have to rely on patchwork pitching that will include every fifth starter, middle reliever and obscure bullpen hand they have. That's playoff baseball, though.

Boston will likely start Derek Lowe, who will go on two days rest. New York's most likely starter is Kevin Brown, who Boston has hit hard. It won't take long before taxed bullpens come into play.

"We are using our entire ball club," said Terry Francona. "We have a 25-man roster and whatever it takes to win a game, we'll do. There's not one player or one pitcher that is not willing to do what we ask them to do to try to win.

"At this time of year, it can't be about individuals. It's got to be about our ball club and everybody has been great about trying to chip in, whether it's steal, defense, pitch out of the bullpen, everybody has been great."

This is why baseball is gripping the nation again. The overnight ratings for Monday's Game 6 were through the roof – an 18.3 nationally, a 44 share in New York and a whopping 70 share in Boston.

The drama of a team battling back from a 3-0 hole has only added to the thrills and chills.

The Yankees, 26-time World Series champs playing for their 40th American League pennant against a franchise they have long owned and tortured, are on the verge of an epic meltdown.

After Game 6, even Torre, about the calmest and most professional you'll ever meet in baseball, was beginning to show some wear. Now he has to figure out how to get his players to forget about everything around them and just win one simple game.

"You really can't carry baggage," he said. "I'm not saying that you feel good about the fact that you lost three in a row, there's no question you don't feel good about it, but this game, you prove yourself to yourself every day."

The beauty of this series lies in the resiliency of both teams. Boston became the first team in baseball history to go down 3-0 then come back to force a Game 7 because it never stopped believing it could.

New York, as reeling as it is right now, is far from finished. Remember, these are still the Yankees, remember – "It ain't over by any stretch against this team and this organization," said Boston Curt Schilling. There is still too much pride and power in that dugout to roll over because times have gotten tough.

"Last year, the Red Sox won the last game, Game 6, and we were able to fight back and win Game 7," said Torre. "That's what we're going to have to do this year. We just have to call on the reserves that, you know, enabled us to bounce back from a lot of challenges all year."

Yes coming out of a 3-0 hole is nearly unheard of. In the history of American pro sports it has been done just twice, only in the NHL and not since 1975. But in many of those occasions the team that got up 3-0 was the superior team – say Michael Jordan's Bulls in a first round series against a lowly 8 seed.

Boston and New York are about as dead even as you can get. In their last 51 games, Boston holds a 26-25 advantage.

A different bounce of the ball in any of Boston's three wins and we aren't talking about this.

"No question we are evenly matched," said Torre Tuesday. "We've played two extra-inning games, and (in Game 6) the game ends with the tying run at first base."

Wednesday won't just be baseball, but sports at its most-dramatic, heart-stopping best. Two teams that have been fighting each other on and off the field, bitter enemies but respected foes, playing one last time.

An October Classic just how it should be, Boston and New York, set to write another glorious, agonizing page of their rich history here at the Stadium.

Play ball.