BOSTON (AP) – Wait till last year.

The familiar refrain has changed only slightly in Boston as the Red Sox confront another lost season with considerably more cheer than previous years and a look toward the past instead of the future.

“We didn’t find the magic this year,” general manager Theo Epstein said Saturday, a day after the Chicago White Sox swept Boston out of the first round of the AL playoffs.

“There’s a fine line between winning and losing in the postseason. We got outplayed in October, and that happens. And if it happens for three games, you’re going home.”

The Red Sox managed to avoid that in 2004, winning the World Series title the city had anticipated for 86 years. A breakthrough for the franchise – even a supernatural curse-buster, to some – the fans exulted in their liberation, filling the streets 3 million strong, lining up for pictures with the championship trophy and visiting the graves of dead ancestors who never got a chance to celebrate for themselves.

But it’s possible that the real change is visible only now, after the type of early playoff exit that that typically leads to an offseason of finger-pointing. But unlike previous Red Sox disappointments, this one has generated no scapegoated manager, no player being blamed into seclusion or tagged with an expletive as a middle name.

“We won 95 games in a season where things didn’t go right,” manager Terry Francona said. “I’m not going to apologize for that.”

The things that didn’t go right for Boston are multitudinous. To list just some:

-Reliever Keith Foulke was hobbled by pain that required knee surgery, and he was never nearly as effective as when he closed all four games of the World Series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.

-Second baseman Mark Bellhorn, whose homers against the Yankees helped the Red Sox rally from an 0-3 deficit in last year’s AL championship series, batted .216 in half a season before he was released – and then signed by New York.

-First baseman Kevin Millar was reduced to a role of clubhouse mascot, never getting on the hitting streak that could have pulled his numbers (.272, 9 HR, 50 RBIs) to respectability.

-Shortstop Edgar Renteria, the team’s chief free agent acquisition, had an awful April at the plate and struggled throughout the year in the field, leading the majors with 30 errors.

-Starter Curt Schilling, the bloody-socked star of the team’s title run, never returned to form after offseason ankle surgery that was delayed – if not complicated – by the unprecedented jury-rigging necessary to keep him on the mound in the 04 playoffs. A temporary stint as the team’s closer kept him relevant, but the Red Sox didn’t make it to his turn in the rotation against Chicago.

“We asked a lot, physically, of people (in 2004) that I think may have hurt us this year,” Francona said as his players cleaned out their lockers on Saturday. “I don’t think anybody would trade that.”

After a cathartic victory spawned parades and trophy tours and more books than a die-hard could read in a doubleheader, the Red Sox came out intent on winning it all again. They led the AL East by as many as 51/2 games in midsummer, but the Yankees took a one-game lead heading into a three-game, season-ending series at Fenway Park.

The teams wound up tied for the division, with New York taking its eighth consecutive title on the strength of a 10-9 record in the season series. That left the Red Sox matched up with a relatively rested AL Central champion Chicago, which had clinched a weekend early.

The White Sox pounced for a 14-2 victory in Game 1, then took advantage of second baseman Tony Graffanino’s error to win 5-4 in the second game. In Game 3 on Friday night, Red Sox nemesis Orlando Hernandez shut them down for three innings, pitching out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam that was Boston’s last, best hope.

“All the magic and all the accolades that we got from last year are, all of a sudden, gone,” outfielder Johnny Damon said afterward. “I know all of us enjoyed it. There were tons of books and DVDs that made it seem it was easy to accomplish. It wasn’t.”

And it was even harder to repeat.

Graffanino, who as a midseason acquisition this year missed out on last season’s party, let a grounder go through his legs in Game 2 just before a three-run homer gave the White Sox the lead. He was compared to 1986 scapegoat Bill Buckner in the newspapers, but when he was introduced back at Fenway for Game 3 he was given a raucous cheer.

“I was moved beyond belief,” he said. “Probably, if I allowed it to happen, I would have cried.”

Welcome to the new Red Sox era, Tony.

Everything’s different now.

AP-ES-10-08-05 1809EDT

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