"You have what should be a comfortable lead, but you know that it is not going to wind up that way, for some strange reason," Joe Torre said. "This place, this team, they never stop.
It was close to a perfect return for Al Leiter last night in Boston as the Yankees beat the Red Sox5-3, and won the weekend series. Senator Al, wearing number 19 in honor of former teammate Dave Righetti, pitched into the seventh inning, striking out eight, allowing just one run, and walking only three. Leiter was able to throw strikes and he was also able to get the Red Sox to swing at balls that weren't strikes. Tim Wakefield surrendered five hits to the Yankees, but they all went for extra bases, two doubles and three home runs. Jorge Posada and Gary Sheffield hit two-run dingers, and Alex Rodriguez added a solo shot in the eighth.
The surprisingly brisk game slowed down for some predictable drama in the bottom half of the ninth. Tom Gordon started the inning with New York up 5-1. After getting ahead of Manny Ramirez, Gordon hung a breaking ball that Manny promptly deposited over the Green Monster. Kevin Millar walked and in came Rivera. The first two pitches to Trot Nixon were in the strike zone. The first, a fastball, was taken for a strike; the second, a cutter which was fouled off, was right down Broadway. But then Nixon tapped a grounder to second. Robinson Cano fielded the ball cleanly but could not grip the ball properly and wound up throwing it into left field.
Instead of two men out and nobody on, there was nobody out with men on the corners. Jason Varitek pinch-hit for Mirabelli and lined a single past a diving Tino Martinez, scoring Millar to make the score 5-3. Bill Mueller blooped a single to shallow center (making him 5-11 lifetime versus Rivera) and the bases were loaded. Still nobody out. Joe Torre and the entire infield came to the mound. Rivera told them everything was going to be okay. But he fell behind the ninth-place hitter Alex Cora 2-0, and Fenway started to rock. Talk about a tight spot. But Rivera worked the count even and then Cora hit a ground ball on one hop to Rodriguez at third, who, in turn, fired a bullet home to Posada, who then fired to first to complete the double play. The replays showed that Cora was safe, but it was an excellent play by Rodriguez and Posada. (It was the second close play at first of the game--Jason Giambi had been called out earlier in the game.) Two men out, but the tying run was still on second base. Johnny Damon, who had a poor night against Leiter, but nevertheless extended his hitting streak to 29 games (the team record, held by Dom DiMaggio, is 34), was up. Rivera got him to ground out to Cano, and just like that, the game was over.
"Coming into the second half, these are the guys we wanted," said Gary Sheffield, who tomahawked a two-run homer in the third off Tim Wakefield (complete-game five-hitter) for a 4-0 Yankee lead. "We got 'em, and we played well when we needed to."
But, Sheffield added, "I don't want those guys to wake up. We're getting out of here just in time."
It was a big win for the Yankees, who move on to Texas and then Anahiem this week without a day of rest. It's hard to know how many more performances like this Leiter has in him, but if the Yanks can manage to get another half-dozen or so, they would be ecstatic. Perhaps Leiter could eventually come out of the bullpen as a left-handed specialist. Who knows? But one thing is for sure, his return could not have been finer.