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SUPPAN FINALLY HAS A ROLE IN RED SOX TITLE BID

ST. LOUIS -- Jeff Suppan is familiar with the history of postseason failure that haunts the Boston Red Sox. His career was born into it. Suppan was once the organization's prized prospect, a pitcher destined to help liberate the franchise from its oppressive past.

Suppan knows the Red Sox, all right. He was selected by the organization in the second round of the 1993 draft. He was pitching in Boston by the time he was 20, just a season after tying for the Class A Florida State League lead in victories, topping the circuit in strikeouts and being ranked by Baseball America as the FSL's No. 1 prospect.

The kid was can't-miss, a cornerstone of the future. Or so goes a story that begins -- Once upon a time . . .

Suppan journeyed a few years longer than expected before coming to fully realize the potential the Red Sox had envisioned. He meandered all the way to this season, where he produced a staff- and career-high 16 victories for the St. Louis Cardinals, his fifth big-league club and the team that finished the regular season with baseball's best record.

So Suppan will, as once projected, become a factor in Boston's quest for an elusive championship. He'll be starring in the role of villain and aiming to wrest the momentum from the Red Sox as the World Series shifts to Busch Stadium tonight with Boston holding a 2-0 lead that has tantalized New England.

Suppan has excelled in the first postseason appearances of his 10-year career. He held Los Angeles to two runs over seven innings in the divisional series. He beat Houston's Roger Clemens, his former Red Sox teammate, in the deciding game of the National League Championship Series. Three solid playoff starts, one of them coming with the NLCS on the line, suggest he won't be awed or intimidated by tonight's matchup with Pedro Martinez, one of the game's premier pitchers during the last decade.

Suppan renewed acquaintances with the Red Sox last year, returning to the organization as part of a trade-deadline deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He struggled for Boston in its stretch run and was left off the roster for the divisional series. He was activated for the ALCS against the Yankees and warmed up twice but never entered a game. He was more or less an outsider, a temporary hired gun, the bonds among teammates nothing like those that have been nurtured this season. For the first time since his early days in Boston, Suppan is full-time with an organization focused on winning, a capable contender.

"I think the difference between last year and this year is that I've been here since spring training; to go through everything we've gone through as a team, and I think this is the best team I've played on," Suppan said Monday at Busch Stadium. "We contribute in our own ways, and I think that's the beauty of it, because we're all pulling, we're all pulling the rope."

The Cardinals are in dire need of a pick-me-up. Their big hitters were silent in the two games at Fenway, allowing the Red Sox to minimize the effects of their own shoddy defense. They've yet to hold Boston under six runs. They need a sweep of the three games at Busch Stadium to prevent the Red Sox from returning to Fenway with a clinching opportunity in hand. It's a strange predicament considering the Cards had baseball's best record, the Red Sox were a wild-card and yet Boston has the home-field advantage based on the American League's win in the All-Star Game.

"It's interesting, but it is what it is," Suppan said. "We can't do anything about it now."

Suppan will gladly play with the hand he's been dealt. The Cardinals led the National League in run production. They have Gold Glove fielders scattered throughout their defense. St. Louis is no less passionate a baseball town than Boston, although not nearly as desperate.

"It's been a great situation for me to be in, you know, with the offense, the defense, the bullpen that we have, it's really been a blessing as a starting pitcher," Suppan said. "You come out with some wins."

The Red Sox always figured Suppan had it in him, that he could become a dependable starter, a consistent winner. And isn't it just their luck that his time is now?
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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