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ALCS drama merely a prelude

ALCS drama merely a prelude

BOSTON -- Genteel in its origins, proletarian in its development, egalitarian in its demands and appeal, effortless in its adaptation to nature, raucous, hard-nosed and glamorous as a profession, expanding with the country like fingers unfolding from a fist, images of lost past, ever-green reminder of America's promises, baseball fits America.

It is all of that right now entering the final days of the Major League Baseball postseason. The words from late Commissioner Bart Giamatti greet you on a wall high atop Fenway Park, and they ring so true, as true as J.D. Drew's bathead meeting a ball thrown by Fausto Carmona with the bases loaded.

There will be a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series tonight in Boston at 8 p.m. ET, with Jake Westbrook starting for the Indians against Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox. The winner will be host to the famously rested Rockies in Game 1 of the 103rd World Series on Wednesday. The national pastime once again delivers unrehearsed wonder, the kind of stuff you just can't make up.

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Genteel in its origins, proletarian in its development, egalitarian in its demands and appeal ...

Baseball summons all classes, all walks of life, all ages, and save for the occasional Manny moments, it is 100 percent blue-collar work that gets you this far. Jon Lithgow was down in the box seats on Saturday night, watching Boston's 12-2 cakewalk in Game 6. A sea of fans were watching the game live back at idle Jacobs Field during one of these remarkable Tribe Pride parties, and although it was a dampened atmosphere, it was the shared experience that matters most as a fan. Katie Connolly, 34, of Boston was standing behind Section 18 at Fenway, amazed at how she felt.

"It feels very easy now, and that's scary," she said in the eighth inning as everyone around her sang "Sweet Caroline" in the mellifluous nightly ritual. "It's not the same as 2004. I'm nervous and upset inside about the whole thing, but it's not the same. It's just not the same. We're not the kind of nervous wrecks that we were back then."

Back then, the Red Sox wiped out a 3-0 ALCS lead by the rival Yankees and somehow won the pennant on the way to their first World Series championship in 86 years. That kind of angst and gastronomical grief probably never will happen again in the lifetime of the average Sox fan. This has felt like something ... different. So egalitarian in demands, an expectation of winning another World Series. Just ask Drew what kind of expectations come along with the territory at Fenway in 2007.

"It has been a tough year," he said after basically winning Game 6 from the outset. "One of those situations is my expectations are high, I didn't have the year I would have liked to have, but I feel like I had a good September and started getting things turned around. Just wanted to go into the playoffs and have good at-bats. In that situation right there, you couldn't have asked for anything any better, it just was one of them situations where I was very relaxed going into the at bat, realized we had two outs, didn't really want to walk off the field without any runs, so was trying to hit a ball hard. Worked out great."

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Effortless in its adaptation to nature, raucous, hard-nosed and glamorous as a profession ...

Boston, Cleveland, Denver. Three cities that are about to get very cold. Baseball follows the seasons ever so effortlessly, and soon enough they will be unplayable. But they are holding up just fine so far, pending a World Series that could last through Nov. 1. Out in Denver, just to stay busy, the Rockies played an intrasquad game on Saturday. The box score made its way to Fenway, and as they prepared to start Game 6 here, it was actually pleasant just to see a Roxbox again. Todd Helton, he was 5-for-6. Garret Atkins walked four times. What's up with Brad Hawpe striking out four times in six at-bats? Must be experimenting. Josh Fogg faced 20 batters, allowing five hits and two earned runs.

Somehow, manager Clint Hurdle's National League champs have to stay fresh. They won 21 of their last 22 games, and every day that seems a little more like "sometime this season." Now, at last, they know that their opponent will be revealed. They will watch on Sunday night like everyone else as an AL pennant winner is determined.

"We have a lot of confidence in all our guys," Indians catcher Victor Martinez said. "We know what we have to do. Game 7 is going to be a lot of fun."

You know who is having fun? Big Papi is having fun. Down in the bowels of the stadium, the big man from the Dominican Republic draped prodigious platinum necklaces around his large head. One of them had the number 34 inside of it, inside the other was a gleaming sun. He wore a No. 81 Randy Moss jersey and a Patriots cap. He's been through this before. He seemed as carefree as March. The big smile was shining like that sun in his necklace, something that was missing in Games 2-3-4.

"You got the crowd, the fans behind you cheering, that makes a huge difference," said David Ortiz, now one game away from becoming a first baseman again in Denver at this time next week. "We're trying to do it again. It's not over yet. We've got to come in and get it done once again. Then you got a little bit of rest before the World Series."

Most people were talking about the pitching matchup for Game 7. Westbrook said the Red Sox lineup is "going to be a challenge for us. I think for me it's just a matter of having a good game plan, sticking with it, making some good pitches when I need to make them and do the best thing I can to do, which is try to keep them off balance." He did just that in Game 3. Matsuzaka, according to Ortiz, watched video of his last outing the "entire night." This is money time for Dice-K, the reason the Sox brought the great Japanese right-hander to Boston last offseason.

Amid the usual horde of Japanese media, that on top of the regular media crowd here, Matsuzaka embodies baseball's glamorous life. But now he must be as hard-nosed as ever, or else one probably can expect to see a Josh Beckett back on short rest in relief (he pitched four innings of the 2003 NLCS Game 7 clincher for Florida).

"After the last few games, I believed I was going to have a chance to throw again," Matsuzaka said in a bilingual statement through a pool reporter. "My teammates kept insisting I would have another chance. So I'm going into tomorrow very excited."

Expanding with the country like fingers unfolding from a fist, images of lost past, ever-green reminder of America's promises, baseball fits America.

Eric Wedge wants to see the fist, the fight. This is his team. It has not won a world championship since 1948, and to the average Indians fan, that might have been when the pharaohs ruled ancient Egypt. Those are images of the lost past, the days of Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau and Bob Lemon and Early Wynn.

"It just has to stop, and it has to stop tonight," said the Cleveland manager. "They need to go to bed tonight with clear heads and think good thoughts and come here tomorrow expecting to win.

"You know, they have experienced a great deal in the course of the regular season, and we experienced a great deal in a short period of time in the New York series. It's another step for us, but it's not completely uncharted. I think it's something that we've shown time and time again that we handle these things pretty well."

Anything can happen now. It is the greatest possible contrast between two leagues, a Rockies team dispatched its Arizona opponent in four NLCS game, and a classic seven-game series over in the junior circuit. There will be another Game 7 for a Red Sox team that had to rally from oblivion. Fenway Park and its Monster are evergreen at this time of year, as is Curt Schilling, a 10-game postseason winner now.

The promise of another World Series is near, and with one more game a unique matchup will be known. All eyes will be on a hallowed ballpark where a crucial night could go either way. It is such a beautiful game, this baseball, as Giamatti knew so well. And it fits better than ever right now.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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