Sox try to sweep series under the rug

When it was finally over, after four hours and 23 minutes of the most intense and compelling regular-season baseball anyone could remember, the Red Sox and Yankees went their separate ways early Friday morning.

Following a three-game series sweep that seemed to get incrementally worse for the Red Sox each night, the Yankees stayed put in familiar surroundings and the Red Sox headed south.

Which, when you think about, is perfectly fitting. The gap between them -- a yawning 8½ games -- is the biggest since the end of the 2002 season, when the Yankees won yet another division title and the Red Sox finished out the postseason.

Since their last meeting at the end of April, the Yankees have played at almost a .750 clip while the Red Sox have struggled to stay above .500. While a number of Red Sox players bristled at the suggestion that they were now playing for the American League wild-card spot, the stark reality is that the Sox must make up some ground on the division front-runners before their next dance: July 23-25 at Fenway.

Though the series visited one indignity after another upon the Sox -- from the slap-in-the-face embarrassment of Tuesday's 11-3 drubbing to the kick-in-the-teeth late-inning squander in the second game to the hard shot to the solar plexus in Thursday's marathon defeat -- the Sox maintained they had been made stronger.

"We take more from this game than we lose,'' insisted Pedro Martinez, who gave the Sox seven strong innings but was left holding a no-decision. "I bet we'll capitalize on the things we did tonight.''

"They got the better of us in this series,'' acknowledged Johnny Damon. "But this is going to be our worst dip in our year. We still believe we're going to go off and win the World Series.''

First, the Red Sox have some issues to address.

Curt Schilling, who's been pitching most of the season with a bad ankle that requires a painkilling injection at least once per start, confronted setup man Scott Williamson Wednesday night after Williamson had taken himself out of the game, and questioned the reliever's manhood. Schilling's frustration was shared by plenty.

As it turns out, however, Williamson this time had a legitimate injury -- an impingement of the radial nerve of his right elbow -- and will miss a month, a crippling blow to the bullpen. GM Theo Epstein spent much of Thursday on the phone, trying to determine if what little there is available on the trade market is any better than what he has at his disposal at Pawtucket.

Then, there's the curious play of Nomar Garciaparra, who either asked out of Thursday's lineup or was given the night off by manager Terry Francona, take your pick. Garciaparra committed three errors in the first two games, is hitting just .235 (.274 OBP) with one homer in 17 games and appears either distracted, physically limited, or both.

One thing's for certain: The Red Sox don't lack the backing of their manager. As they trudged up from the dugout to the clubhouse late Thursday night, stunned by a reversal of fortune that had seen them go from leading by a run with two outs and strikes and the bases empty in the bottom of the 13th to a sudden, dispiriting loss, Francona was there to greet them.

He slapped them on the back enthusiastically, and shook their hands as if in congratulations.

"Keep [expletive] battling,'' Francona shouted. "You guys are [expletive] great.''

Later, he added: "I've never been so proud of people in my life.''

Though the Sox no doubt welcomed the change of venue, the schedule does them no favors before the All-Star break. They play at Atlanta for three this weekend, then host Oakland and Texas, two potential wild-card aspirants, next week.

If the Sox could, they would take their All-Star break right now.

The Yankees, too, have their challenges. Jason Giambi, who made just one late-inning cameo in the three-game set, has been battling parasites, and now Kevin Brown is doing the same.

Though the Yankees were heartened by the last start from Jose Contreras and hopeful that fellow-Cuban Orlando Hernandez will return soon, the starting rotation has yet to click. Mike Mussina has been spotty and Javier Vazquez, while he's pitched well, is still something of an unknown quantity in big games.

Then there's the bullpen. Felix Heredia may have taken big strides -- his strikeout of David Ortiz with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of the middle game may have constituted the single-biggest at-bat of the series -- but setup men Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon are in danger of overuse.

Still, the Yankees' lead is plenty comfortable. They have built themselves a significant cushion, which should forestall any panicked trade moves instigated from the owner's box.

Not yet at the halfway point, the division is the Yankees' to lose. History teaches us they seldom do.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.