NEW YORK – Yankee Stadium hadn’t been reduced to this sort of stunned, uneasy silence since that fateful October night when George Steinbrenner had told his people to leave the lights on and let the Red Sox party past midnight after completing the greatest comeback in baseball history.

“They earned it,” Steinbrenner would be reported to say in the book, “Emperors and Idiots,” but it’s doubtful The Boss would feel so hospitable and gracious wherever he was watching another, albeit far less consequential, Yankees’ nightmare unfold seven months later.

Once the Yankees’ fans were gone Saturday afternoon, the scene and sound resembled the late hours after Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, except the “Thank you Red Sox,” chants were a less gratuitous “Let’s go Red Sox,” now. There was a blood red hue streaking across the sky Saturday, melding with the awakening of the Sox’ muscle in what had been a most meek season of swings. Twenty-seven Sox’ hits tilted the scoreboard, when either an electronic malfunction or a remote from Tampa ultimately blinked it back to zeros in the eighth inning of the Sox’ 17-1 victory.

It wouldn’t have been too surprising had Steinbrenner himself pulled the plug on the proceedings. The Yankees had never been beaten so badly by the Sox, and despite winning 16 out of their last 18, that’s always a reason for The Boss’ ire to be raised. Only time will tell if this turns out to be the watershed for the Sox’ season, the uprising of dormant hitters they were desperate to see. It had been a horrible run of hitting for the Sox, the bats bottoming out with eight losses that had come in the past 11 games before Saturday, which had dropped them below the Yankees in the standings.

After the game, the Sox’ captain Jason Varitek curled a smile on his lips, and said, “We’ve been shut down most of the year. We’ve had two guys hot here, two there. … You need more than two guys at the same time.”

The Red Sox had been tantalizingly close to a disturbing spiral until they were able to get into the batter’s box against a kid born and raised in the middle world between Boston and New York – Southington, Conn., – and the Sox beat up Carl Pavano good.

Matt Clement was the consolation prize for the Sox losing the Marlins’ free agent to the Yankees, but Clement’s found control in Boston under the scrutiny of pitching coach Dave Wallace and the steering of his catcher, Varitek. When the Sox have needed an ace to bridge themselves to Curt Schilling, as they wait for his return, that wild-throwing Wrigley right-hander has found calm at the top of the Sox’ rotation. He toyed with the powerful Yankees’ lineup, shutting them down the way no one had done in weeks.

Mostly, this had been an awakening for the Sox’ bats. Yes, Johnny Damon had four hits to raise his average to .345, but beyond one more fantastic start out of Clement – six shutout innings and seven strikeouts – the Sox prayed that Manny Ramirez (4-for-4) and Edgar Renteria (3-for-3, five RBI) officially had come back to the living in the Sox’ lineup. Renteria has had a wonderful series at the Stadium, but the Sox are so diminished unless Ramirez is playing the part of the hitting savant. Hitting .193 over his past 31 games, Ramirez has been far from one of the American League’s most feared hitters.

Beginning with him too, everyone wants to believe that the reigning world champions have been too fat and happy, still suffering a hangover from the biggest party in Boston since the Revolutionaries were tossing tea into the harbor. With these Sox, it’s been fashionable to doubt the clubhouse’s hunger after ending 86 years of cruel New England winters.

It was only natural to wonder if the urgency would sustain itself in Boston this year. After all, the edge is off with the World Series flag finally raised again at Fenway Park. If they were pounding the Yankees this way a year ago, there would be those 1918 chants out of Yankees fans. No more.

Now, the Sox turn to the ever-expanding waistline and ERA of David Wells tonight to end the series. It’s still strange to see him wearing that No. 3 Sox uniform, but his 6.81 ERA has to start descending for the Sox to stay in the chase with the Yankees for the Orioles in the American League East. He always lives for this prime-time Stadium stage, and he has it again. Only this time, with the Red Sox.

Twenty-seven hits on Saturday left everyone wondering whether this was the start of something big for the Sox, or simply a blip on a bumpy ride. It looked like last October at the Stadium on Saturday, a most welcome sight for what has been a most unsightly Sox stretch.

(c) 2005, North Jersey Media Group Inc.

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AP-NY-05-28-05 2146EDT

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