On the day that the team made public an injury that, if serious, could mean the end of their playoff hopes, the Yankees played a must-win games against their hated rivals, fell behind 4-0 in the first inning, but battled back to tie twice before Red Sox Nation's most hated Yankee hit a go-ahead shot to dead center off everyone else's most hated Red Sock in the ninth and the legendary Yankee closer who has famously struggled against Boston struck out the top three men in the Boston order to nail down the win.
You can't make this stuff up.
After Robinson Cano ran into an out in the top of the first trying to stretch a bloop double spectacularly misplayed by Manny Ramirez into a triple, the Red Sox took full advantage of a clearly rusty Mike Mussina in the bottom of the inning. Following singles by Johnny Damon and David Ortiz that produced the game's first run and a walk by Manny Ramirez, Mussina fell behind Yankee killer Trot Nixon 2-0 before evening the count only to wind up in a full count with one out (via a Renteria sac bunt that advanced Damon) and two on. Mussina's next pitch stayed up in the zone and Nixon crushed it into the Red Sox's bullpen for a three-run homer. Mussina then walked Kevin Millar on four pitches. Having only recorded one out (on a sacrifice, no less) Mussina was already down 4-0 with another man on. He then managed to pitch around another walk (his third of the inning, due in part to the fact that home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt was calling pitches over the black on left side of the plate balls through the early part of the game) to escape without any further damage. It took Mussina 34 pitches to get through the inning.
Fortunately, the Yankees got right back in the game in the top of the second with a pair of Pesky Pole home runs by Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams. Giambi's shot landed in the front row just beyond the right field pole. Boston right fielder Trot Nixon lept into the crowd with an apparent bead on the ball, but a fan caught it just in front of Nixon's glove.
Mussina settled down in bottom of the second by striking out Damon and erasing a Renteria single via a surprising 3-4-3 double play turned by Jason Giambi and the Yankees drew closer yet in the top of the third. Robinson Cano lead off with a single and was driven home when Gary Sheffield pounded a Bronson Arroyo pitch off the wall in dead center. The ball hit well above Johnny Damon's leap and rolled to Nixon in right. Had, Sheffield been sprinting out of the gate, he could have had a triple. Instead, he would up with an RBI double and was stranded at second by a Rodriguez strike out and fly outs by Matsui and Posada. It was a mistake Sheffield would not make twice.
The Red Sox got that one back in the bottom of the third on a Nixon single, a Millar double and a Varitek RBI groundout. That groundout by Millar would be the first of eight straight outs recorded by a suddenly effective Mike Mussina.
As Mussina cruised, the Yankees went to work. Sheffield launched Arroyo's second pitch of the fifth into the farthest left corner of the centerfield bleachers for a solo home run to bring the Yankees back within a run (having learned his lesson, Sheffield was busting it out of the box even though, this time, he didn't need to).
In the sixth, Jorge Posada picked up a new bat and broke a three-game hitless streak with a lead-off single. He then moved to second with one out on a passed ball in the dirt. With two outs, Derek Jeter ripped a 1-1 pitch in the hole beyond third that Buell Mueller caught on a full dive to his left. Mueller then scrambled to his feet and fired a wild throw to first that bounded into the Boston dugout, sending Posada home with the tying run and driving Arroyo from the game.
The Red Sox broke Mussina's streak in the bottom of the sixth when Millar and Varitek lead off with back-to-back singles. Millar then moved to third on a Mueller fielder's choice, putting runners on the corners with just one out. Mussina then struck out Mark Bellhorn on four pitches, but fell behind Damon 3-0 only to rally and strike him out on three called strikes, the last his 101st pitch of the night (by this time, Wendelstadt's strike zone had expanded by about six inches, one of the worst performances I've seen by a home plate ump in some time). With or without Wendelstadt's help, it was a fantastic performance by Mussina to not only escape that inning, but give the Yankees a solid outing after his dreadful first. In innings 2 through 6 Mussina's line looked like this: 5 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 HR, 0 BB, 5 K
Perhaps cluing us all in as to the team's plans for Sunday and Monday's starters, Joe Torre then brought in Tanyon Sturtze for the seventh. Sturtze battled to strike out Renteria for the first out and then got ahead of Ortiz 1-2 only to have Shreky McChinstrap blast a solo shot into the seats in right. The pitch was inside and belt high and even hand a nice little hop to it, but Ortiz turned on it. Sturtze can't be blamed for that, and one can only imagine the horrors had Torre decided to try to save him for a spot start, turning instead to a gassed Mussina or Scott Proctor (though a LOOGY might have worked). Sturtze then fell behind Ramirez 3-0, but rallied to get him and Nixon out in order to end the inning.
Feeling his oats, Posada then lead off the eighth with a double, making this his first two hit game since Benson was on the air (or June 17, one of those). At that point, Alan Embree, who had recorded the last two outs of the seventh in relief of Chad Bradford's 2005 debut (ground out, four-pitch walk), was relieved by Mike Timlin. With his team two productive outs from once again tying the game, Torre sent Tony Womack in to run for Posada. After Bernie delivered the first of those two outs by grounded Womack over to third, Joe Torre brought in Ruben Sierra to hit for Melky Cabrera (0 for 3 last night and 0 for 9 over his last three games after starting out 3 for 7). On a 1-1 count, Sierra yanked a double just inside the first base bag, plating Womack and tying the game. Derek Jeter then grounded Sierra over to third, but with two outs and the go-ahead run on third, Robinson Cano popped out to short on the first pitch he saw.
With Womack in center and Flaherty behind the plate, Tom Gordon then made his first appearance since leaving last Thursday's game against the Indians with tightness in his pitching shoulder. Gordon walked Millar to start the eighth, but then retired Varitek, Mueller and pinch-hitter John Olerud in order to strand pinch-runner Adam Stern at second.
Then came a sequence of events straight out of most Yankee fans' wildest fantasies. Newly minted Red Sox closer Curt Schilling, fresh of the disabled list, jogged in from the Boston bullpen to face the heart of the Yankee order (Sheffield, Rodriguez, Matsui) with the score tied. Earlier in the game, Schilling had moved from the Red Sox's dugout to the bullpen to a tremendous ovation from the Fenway faithful. That ovation was repeated as Schilling took the mound for the ninth (his first major league relief appearance since 2002, and just his second since 1992).
Leading off, Gary Sheffield fouled off Schilling's first, third and fifth pitches, taking two balls in between to run the count to 2-2. He then creamed a pitch off the centerfield portion of the Green Monster (his third shot of the night that hit or cleared the center field wall) and hustled into second for a lead-off double. Schilling's next pitch, to Alex Rodriguez was over the plate at the knees. Rodriguez dropped his bat on it and golfed it to dead center for a two-run home run.
With an 8-6 lead, their first of the game, the Yankees then went down in order and brought in Mariano Rivera for the save. Rivera's early-season struggles against the Red Sox seemed like a bad dream as he struck out the first three hitters in the Red Sox line-up (Damon, Renteria and Ortiz) all swinging, to wrap up the win and drop his season ERA to 0.98.
With Tim Redding starting tomorrow and J.D. Salinger and Howard Hughes going on Sunday and Monday, this was a game the Yankees absolutely had to have for both practical and emotional reasons. Making it all the more sweet, the much ballyhooed decision to use Curt Schilling as their closer--about which fans on both sides of the rivalry can agree we've all heard way too much about over the past week--blew up in the Red Sox faces in an almost poetic fashion to give the Yankees the victory. With last night's win, the Yankees are now a mere 1.5 games behind the Red Sox for first place in the AL East, just one game behind the Twins in the Wild Card hunt, and 10-3 in their last thirteen games.
Of course, the Yankees have been in this position before. Their last series against the Red Sox opened with a hard-fought victory to cap a 16-2 streak, only to be followed by a pair of dominating Red Sox victories and a 1-9 slide that saw the Yankees get swept by the AL-worst Royals. The current outlook, with the 46-41 Rangers replacing Kansas City, doesn't appear much brighter. But with the way this team is playing right now, it seems like anything is possible.