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SWEEP DREAMS FOR RED SOX <br> PEDRO'S GEM PRODUCES A 3-0 BOSTON LEAD

It's been an 86-year wait for the tormented Boston Red Sox and their long-suffering fans. With one more win, it will all be over and the infamous Curse of the Bambino that has dogged the franchise will be lifted forever.

The Sox took a commanding lead in the World Series with Tuesday's 4-1 win over the bumbling St. Louis Cardinals in Busch Stadium. Boston leads the series, 3-0, and can spark the biggest clambake New England has ever seen with a win tonight in Game Four. Derek Lowe, who beat the Yankees in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series, will start for Boston against St. Louis' Jason Marquis and try to silence all those taunts of "1918."

"Sure, we're up, 3-0, but we of all people know it's not over," Boston outfielder Johnny Damon said. "Something special could happen but we also know what we can't let happen, too."

A 3-0 lead almost certainly means the Sox can start getting sized for their championship rings. All 20 teams winning the first three games of a World Series have gone on to win it, and 17 have completed sweeps.

But like Damon said, the Sox have to be wary. After all, it was only last week they completed the first 0-3 comeback in baseball history by recovering against the Yankees.

"We understand there's another game to get," Boston utility man Kevin Millar said. "We're not getting giddy here. St. Louis can do the same thing to us that we did to the Yankees. Hopefully (tonight) will be the night."

Game Three was a cakewalk for the Sox.

Pedro Martinez pitched seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and retiring the final 14 men he faced in what might be his last appearance for Boston heading into a free-agent winter. Mike Timlin and Keith Foulke finished the combined four-hitter that saw the Sox retire 20 of the final 21 Cardinals.

Manny Ramirez homered in the top of the first to give the Sox the lead and threw out Larry Walker at home in the bottom of the inning to preserve it.

It was all Martinez needed. Martinez turned 33 Monday and he's not the 95-mph flamethrower he once was, but he can still be dominant if his changeup and cut fastball are as devastating as they were Tuesday.

"I've never been happier for somebody," catcher Jason Varitek said. "For as much scrutiny as that guy gets put under through a great career, to go out there and have that pitching performance was just phenomenal. He wasn't overpowering today. He just pitched well and utilized everything."

The Sox have matched the longest winning streak (seven games) within a single postseason in baseball history, joining the 1998 New York Yankees, 1995 Atlanta Braves and 1976 Cincinnati Reds. Meanwhile, the Cardinals lost for the first time in seven home playoff games and their situation is dire.

"We're about in as difficult a spot as you can be," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "They're doing a lot of good things and we're not doing enough. I don't think we're stinking up the joint."

Hmmm. That's his opinion. To this point, the Cards are guilty of one of the biggest no-shows ever by a 105-win team in the Fall Classic. Consider:

St. Louis has given up runs in the first inning of all three games and has never led. The Red Sox, in fact, have not been behind at any point in their last 51 innings dating to the 14-inning victory in Game Five of the ALCS against the Yankees.

The Cardinals are batting just .208 compared to Boston's .294. The team ERA difference is 7.20 for St. Louis and 3.33 for Boston.

St. Louis starting pitchers have an 11.91 earned run average. Boston starters are at just 2.70, with Curt Schilling and Martinez combining to go 13 innings without an earned run the last two games.

Cardinals cleanup man Scott Rolen is 0 for 11, No. 5 hitter Jim Edmonds is 1 for 11 and No. 6 hitter Reggie Sanders is 0 for 9.

Martinez got a big break on Ramirez's throw and an even bigger one in the third when the Cardinals frittered away a certain tying run on an unbelievable baserunning mistake.

Pitcher Jeff Suppan led off with an infield single and took third on Edgar Renteria's double to right-center. With Walker up -- and the Boston infield back, conceding the run -- a grounder to Mark Bellhorn at deep second base should have scored Suppan to tie the game.

But Suppan stunned all 52,015 in the house by hesitating down the line. Bellhorn first threw to second, then it was relayed to first baseman David Ortiz, who fired behind Suppan to nail him trying to dive back into third.

The Cardinals never got another baserunner until Walker's solo homer with one out in the ninth off Keith Foulke.

"I don't know what Suppan was thinking," Millar said. "We were all in the dugout shocked. It was great for us, that's for sure."

"It was a break and we took advantage of it," Martinez said. "Once they didn't score in that inning, I said, 'It's up to me now.' "

The Sox pushed their lead to 2-0 in the fourth on back-to-back doubles with two out by Bill Mueller and Trot Nixon. RBI singles by Ramirez and Mueller in the fifth sent Suppan to the showers.

Martinez has been Boston's workhorse since he arrived from Montreal in 1998. If this was his final appearance for Boston, it will leave a deep memory for Sox fans. Martinez struck out six, walked two and allowed just one batter to even get the ball out of the infield over his final 4 2/3 innings.

"I enjoyed every moment," Martinez said. "I hope I get another chance to come back with this team, but if I don't I understand the business side of it. My heart is with Boston. It's been a great ride. I hope everybody enjoyed it as much as I have."

Martinez has put the Sox on the brink. The biggest moment for the team and its fans to enjoy could be coming tonight.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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