NEW YORK - No one ever has accused Mariano Rivera of being a drama queen, but he certainly manufactured all the late afternoon and early evening drama in this one all by himself.
"The adventure really started in the ninth inning," said Yankees skipper Joe Girardi.
Girardi sent the great closer out for the ninth fully expecting to see what both he and his predecessor have witnessed with numbing regularity for the past 12 years. The Yankees had a 2-0 lead, and that's the way most everyone assumed it would end. Mo Rivera, who may be having the finest season of his drop-dead, mortal-lock, first-ballot Hall of Fame career, would pick up save No. 23.
Four batters later it was a 2-1 game and the Red Sox had the bases loaded with no one out.
But just as he got himself into this fine mess, he got himself out. He reduced Coco Crisp to a futile swipe at an outside pitch for strike three; he got Jason Varitek on a pop to first; and he threw one of those celebrated cutters past Julio Lugo to leave three runners stranded. All of this gave the 54,990 in attendance sufficient conversational fodder to carry them all back to The City, Joisey, Connecticut, Westchester, or wherever they were headed; and, yup, enable the noble Panamanian to record save No. 23 of 2008 in a most unconventional manner.
Girardi claimed he was never worried.
"I never lose optimism," insisted the mentor. "I've seen Mo do too many things in his career. I believe in our guys."
One thing he had not seen previously, however, was Rivera hitting two batters in the same inning. After yielding a leadoff single to J.D. Drew on a 3-and-2 pitch, he hit Manny Ramírez on an 0-and-1 pitch. It was the third time Manny had been hit in the game, which is another matter. Anyway, Mike Lowell singled to right (RBI No. 32 in the 32d non-Papi game) to bring the Sox within one, whereupon Rivera hit Kevin Youkilis, who had just barely fouled off a wicked cutter on his fists to stay alive at 0 and 2.
Rivera does hit people. He'd plunked 24 men in the previous five years. But entering this game, he had not hit a batter all season. And forget about hitting people, he had only walked three in 37 1/3 innings.
So, what was up with that? Was there any precedent?
"I don't remember," he said. "You'll have to help me out. I don't remember."
One pitch getting away from a guy who makes a living pitching inside anyone can understand. But two?
"You usually don't see innings like that from Mo," Girardi said. "I don't think I've ever seen him hit two guys."
So there he was, one run in, bases loaded, no one out. What was he thinking?
This is what he was thinking: "I told myself, 'You know what? What's happened has happened already. Now you have to make a pitch to get out of it.' "
Any sort of full disclosure would necessitate someone pointing out that the next three hitters were not Mantle, Mays, and Aaron, or even Drew, Ramírez, and Youkilis. Coco was working on an 0 for 3, and in his seventh-inning at-bat had waved at a Jose Veras fastball for a tepid strike three. Varitek . . . don't ask. And Lugo, who had entered the game only after Alex Cora had been hit for in the eighth, stepped up there carrying a .157 average with men in scoring position, as well as a 1 for 5 this season with the bases loaded. In or out of context, you still had to like Mo's chances.
And he knew something the rest of us could only suspect.
"I was getting better as the game was going forward," he said. "Definitely, definitely, definitely."
In all fairness to Rivera, it was asking a lot of him to be sharp. This was his first appearance since last Tuesday, when he blew a game to the Rangers, and only his fourth outing in 14 days. The stumbling Yankees had not been presenting him with many save opportunities.
But a guy doesn't register 499 combined regular and postseason saves by whining about circumstances.
"I don't make any excuses," he said. "As the game got going, my stuff got better."
It's always dangerous to wax excessively melodramatic about a game in early July when the season won't end until Sept. 28, but this was a very important game to the Yankees. They had lost five of six on a homestand with Texas and Boston, and had they lost they would have squandered the latest in a string of impressive outings by Mike Mussina, as well as the six-up, six-down relief performances by Veras and the oft-maligned Kyle Farnsworth. Coming just two days after Girardi held a closed-door postgame meeting with the team, this might have gone down as the worst defeat of the season.
"That was a big game for us," said Girardi. "Obviously, it's been a tough homestand so far for us, and we needed a win."
More to the point, the Yankees needed not to lose. They could have done without the intrigue, but the Yankees don't mind providing a little entertainment as long as the end result is a W.
But next time? A simple 1-2-3 ninth will suffice.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.