Between now and the first pitch of the American League Championship Series tonight, we'll be inundated with a century's worth of Red Sox and Yankee atmospherics. From Harry Frazee selling Babe Ruth in 1920, to Bucky Dent hitting Mike Torrez's spitter over the Wall in 1978, to Saturday's possible matchup between Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens at Fenway Park, every aspect of baseball's most visceral rivalry will be revisited and revived.

One tiny aspect of this battle for a pennant may, however, be overlooked in the pursuit of pre-playoff theatrics. The wild-card Red Sox, an almost prohibitive underdog, are a far more dangerous team than their blue-collar reputation suggests. If the Bosox and their overextended pitching staff are not swept off their feet in the first two games in Yankee Stadium, this could be a fabulously long and tangled series. It could be the '78 one-game playoff for the AL pennant raised to a seven-game-series power.

And, this time, the Red Sox could win.

Not on luck or the mystical reversing of a curse. Not because a century of Red Sox suffering deserves expiation. Not because Martinez has had a season as good as any pitcher who ever lived. But, rather, because the Red Sox are really good. And they play the Yankees very well.

The Yankees have the stars, the recent rings, the momentum, the fresh arms and the high-profile starting rotation of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, David Cone, Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Even Paul O'Neill, enduring a broken rib, worked out yesterday and seems likely to play. All that could be plenty for a swift Sox stompin'.

We can be sure the Red Sox will build up that scenario with their own poor-mouthing. "I don't know who the hell is going to pitch," Manager Jimy Williams said after the Red Sox beat Cleveland in an exhausting five-game series. Then, yesterday, Williams named Kent Mercker for Game 1. "I guess I got the start by default," mused Mercker.

Even though the Red Sox won just three fewer games than the Yankees this year (97-94), the case against Boston seems rock solid. They're slow. They can't stop other team's running games, either. Their 12th-rated defense sometimes goes berserk and makes errors by the barrel (127 miscues and a league-worst 35 passed balls). Nobody turns the double play worse. Aside from Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra--one with a sore back, the other with a sore wrist--who have the Red Sox got that anybody will remember in 10 years?

See, it's better to concentrate on all the color and pageantry of Hub vs. Big Apple hatred. The ALCS itself? Probably just a Yankee blitz.

Maybe. But, definitely, maybe not, too. Almost every Red Sox strength is still a secret. Maybe that's how they won eight of 12 from the Yankees this year, including a three-game sweep in Yankee Stadium in September.

Who led the AL in ERA this season? It was Boston, not New York, even though Fenway is a hitters' park and Yankee Stadium favors pitchers. More surprising, the Red Sox starters had a clearly better ERA (4.04 to 4.33) than the Yankees' more famous rotation.

You might assume that this was simply a Pedro Effect. Yet, if you subtract Martinez's numbers, the Red Sox still had the second-best starting pitching in the league! Even Mercker, a late-season arrival to provide a lefty starter, has actually been a plus with five strong starts (2-0, 3.51 ERA).

If Bret Saberhagen had enough innings to qualify, he would have had the second-best ERA in the league (2.95)--almost half a run ahead of the third-place guy (Cone). Saberhagen stunk against Cleveland. But he had an 0.90 ERA in September. He's been a big-game pitcher. Watch him in Game 4.

The wild card in the Red Sox deck is Pedro's brother, Ramon, the Game 2 starter. As a Dodger, he once won 20 games and had an 18-strikeout game. When healthy, he has always been a nasty top-drawer starter with a .615 winning percentage and 3.45 ERA--a career ERA better than Mike Mussina or Pettitte. Left on the scrap heap with arm miseries, Ramon has come back with five straight first-rate starts.

But the Red Sox's greatest strength is almost completely unnoticed outside Boston: an excellent bullpen. Big Derek Lowe is a first-rate power closer and combined with Rich Garces and Rod Beck for a 2.28 ERA in 116 appearances. Garces and Beck arrived late, strengthening what had been a trump suit all season. The Sox are ultradeep with Pat Rapp, Rheal Cormier, Tom Gordon and Tim Wakefield.

Many will make the point that the Sox only have three regular players with the sort of fancy offensive stats that are common in the '90s. Garciaparra and Troy O'Leary are 100-RBI players and second baseman Jose Offerman scored more than 100 runs. Actually, this totally misses the point.

Like the best Oriole teams of the late '70s and early '80s, the Red Sox seem like more than the sum of their parts. Thanks to platooning and position rotation, the Sox keep their punch a mystery. Boston has three unknown "stars" who average 41 doubles, 27 homers and 100 RBI per 600 at-bats. But that trio is actually a quintet: Brad Daubach, Mike Stanley, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek and Butch Huskey.

"That team does not have a lot of big names, but they have a lot of good hitters," said the Indians' Paul Shuey after the Red Sox scored 44 runs in their three wins--almost 15 per game--to inundate the Indians' staff.

The Red Sox's greatest flaw may be that they do not know how good they are. In late-game crises or when heckled on the road or in a nerve-shattering Game 7, the Yankees will know they're thoroughbreds. So they'll probably play like it. Will the Red Sox, with key men such as O'Leary, who was claimed off the waiver wire, privately believe that they are part donkey?

"I honestly think they will have a better chance against the Yankees than we would have had," said Indians catcher Sandy Alomar.

That sounds right. But will the Red Sox have enough confidence to produce a pennant fight worthy of the final installment in a century-long feud? If the Red Sox can win just one of the first two games at Yankee Stadium, the answer will probably be, "Yes."