If Cotton Mather were alive today, he would be a Boston Red Sox fan. And he'd be mad.

The great preacher, in the tradition of hair-shirt Boston fans, would be pouring his fire and brimstone wrath on the Red Sox heads.

In other towns, the incipient collapse of a beloved team might bring forth prayers and novenas, as Brooklyn once lit candles for the Dodgers.

Here, however, the fickle faithful have reacted to the Sox back-to-back defeats of 15-3, 13-2 and 7-0 at New York's hands as though the Boston had deliberately knelt in hallowed Fenway Park and licked the Yankees' boots.

"One would have to be more than merely divine to forgive the Red Sox their effort of last night - if that's what it was," began one Boston Saturday morning paper. "Their performance was unforgivable, humiliating, embarrassing and . . . indicative that the club is folding.

However, this is tame, even-handed stuff, compared to one old-guard Boston columnist who called the Sox not only "disgraceful" but "intolerable."

"These Sox," wrote that sage, "are taking the gulp (choking) more cravenly than a long line of Sox teams with little stomach in the stretch.

These preachers in print reflect their parishioners in the box seat pews.

Sox introductions are jeered, and their errors mocked. "We want Lee," the mob has chanted, meaning Bill (Spaceman) Lee, who was been banished to Manager Don Zimmer's personal black hole.

Fenway has emptied in the middle innings like a church when the collection plate appears. "It's hard to believe that people would desert them so fast," said Yank Jim Spencer. "You look up in the sixth inning and there are fewer people in the park than there were during batting practice."

Surprisingly, this summer has brought only a nervous, migraine.

The Red Sox fan is a born worrier," says Red Sox official Bill Crowley, "When we're 10 games behind he says, 'Oh, we're out of it now. We'll never catch up.'

"When we're 10 games ahead, he worries because he says, 'We don't belong here. We're not this good.'

"I've watched it for decades; it comes with the territory."

When the Sox are winging, every player is a minor diety. When the angels fall, they are consigned to the neither regions.

Modest infielders like Rick Burleson and Jerry Remy are canonized here in June, then excommunicated in September.

Players of fine physique but middling talent, like Dwight Evans and Butch Hobson, are hounded by the tag of "unlimited potential."

Instead of viewing Evans and Hobson as essentially mediocre hitters made dangerous by The Wall, Fenway fanatics ask, "When are Dewey and Butch gonna hit 40 homers?"

The pity of this season is that the Sox will probably bear the stigma of one of the worst collapses in baseball history. They still are in the lead, said one Yankee, "but they are playing like they're the ones trying to catch us."

Evans, who still is dizzy from a beaning, exemplifies the crippled Sox predicament. "I can't see up and I can't see down," Evans admitted after committing two of the Sox's seven errors on Friday. Those are two pretty important directions.

The Sox scapegoat is already shaping up as Zimmer. The manager is publicly seen as an ancient regime hard guy who was given a high-strung, high-octane Indy race car and kept the pedal to the metal as though he were driving an old dirt-track stocker. Naturally, the Sox are coasting to a dead stop.

Zimmer's players don't necessarily see him that way. "Zim's had very choices," said catcher Carlton Fisk. "If he plays the hurt guys, the people puts in the bench, they yell, 'Where are the starters?'

Zim's in a position where he can't win.

The Yankees also have had catastrophic pitching problems, constant injuries for the first 100 games and a manager who had to be fired for his own health's sake.

Why were the Yankee so good at cutting their losses, while the Red Sox were so poor at minimizing theirs?

Why did the Yankees have the restraint to let their injured heal in June, when the Sox were pummeling them, while the Sox have exacerbated their miseries by going full throttle?

Many a New Englander will tell you that it's all tied up with history and that old Yankee fear.

It's axiomatic in these parts that no Red Sox lead is safe. And it is cradle lore that no Boston team ever has faced up to a Yankee challenge in September.

Therefore, Zimmer had little choice in pushing his delicately balanced powerplant until the black smoke poured from the exhaust. Mythology forced his hand. Only a 20-game lead would suffice.

The Sox, driving flat out, pushed their lead to 14 games on July 19. But now the black flag is waving. The Sox are rolling into the pits, while the Yanks keep circling the track.

Perhaps some miracle fuel will be found - a rookie southpaw named Bobby Sprowl, a nitroglycerin blast by Jim Rice, a furious pregame pep talk like the one the Sox held today.

But for now, the Sox can only gaze at their beautiful busted engine with its five broken pistons named Hobson, Remy, Evnas, Yazsemski and Fish. "This ain't even our real team," growled Rice.

Inside the Sox locker room, the pit crew works furiously. In the hall outside, in the tunnel under Fenway Park, passing Yankee fans set up a cheer each night: "Three, three, three . . . two, two, two . . . " as they count down the dwindling Boston lead.

In the stands outside the crowd is ready to boo. Cotton Mathers don't console a sinner. They give him a free courtesy roadmap to the eternal five.