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Homer improvement

Sox blast three to take opener against Yankees

Archrivalry redux? Tangle of the titans? Shootout in the Kenmore garden of good and evil?

Any line of hype seemed suitable last night for the first showdown between the Red Sox and Yankees since their historic finish in Game 7 of last year's American League Championship Series. Suitable, that is, to everyone but Sox manager Terry Francona.

With the eyes of the sports world trained on the little emerald lawn in the Fens, Francona seemed to be the only soul unmoved by the drama. Sox and Orioles one night, Sox and Yankees the next. No big deal.

"I still woke up and looked in the mirror and had no hair," Francona said. "Some things don't change."

Indeed, some things remain the same, like Tim Wakefield's recent mastery over Yankees other than Aaron Boone, who struck the fateful blow off the Sox knuckleballer in the 11th inning of Game 7 six months ago. Wakefield, who otherwise baffled the Yankees in the ALCS, returned to stymie the Steinbrenner Nine for seven innings and lead the Sox to a 6-2 victory before 35,163 at Fenway Park in the first of 19 regular-season games between the super-rivals.

Even Wakefield was not as jolted by the electricity of the event as most spectators.

"Baseball's my life, but it's not the end of my life," he said of renewing the rivalry after last year's crushing ending. "I take a lot of pride in my job and I was disappointed about what happened last year, but it's time to move on."

Other than Wakefield and some other Sox players, Francona was all but alone in distancing himself from the hoopla surrounding the game and Alex Rodriguez's Boston debut with the Evil Empire. After all, Francona didn't sleep through the frosty night outside the park for a shot at one of the 500 tickets (scattered singles and obstructed views) that went on sale before the game. He didn't have to navigate around glitterati such as former Sox pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee, who decided to plop down on the grass along the first base line before the game near a sprawl of television crews and reporters. He wasn't as drawn to the history of the rivalry as the Sox' public relations crew, which calculated that 182 days 19 hours 51 minutes had elapsed between Boone's homer and Wakefield's first pitch last night. Heck, Francona figured the Sox were playing just another game -- and he still had no hair.

He said he felt no different in the dugout than he did in the previous eight games against the Orioles and Blue Jays.

"I knew the game was televised so I was trying to keep my [tobacco] chewing to a limit so I don't get a call from my children," he said. "But, no, I just want to win every game real bad."

No problem. His team rose to the moment as the Sox rode Wakefield's solid start and home runs by Bill Mueller, Manny Ramirez, and Doug Mirabelli to victory in the opener of the four-game Patriots Day weekend showdown. The Sox struck all three homers off Yankees starter Javier Vazquez, who surrendered six runs (four earned) on nine hits, a walk, and two errors before he was lifted with one out in the sixth.

"We did a lot of good things, as you have to do against good teams," Francona said. "I thought we had good at-bats, and I thought we had a great approach, especially off of Vazquez."

Mueller (a two-run homer) and Mirabelli (a solo shot and run-scoring double) produced the bulk of the Sox' runs, while Ramirez (a solo blast) and an error by Derek Jeter accounted for the rest.

Wakefield, who surrendered only one earned run (two total) on four hits and four walks over seven innings, gave way to Scott Williamson, who would have set down the Yankees in order in the eighth had Ramirez not flubbed a routine, two-out fly by Jason Giambi for an error. Williamson then walked Gary Sheffield and Jorge Posada to load the bases, before Alan Embree ended the scare by mowing down Hideki Matsui.

"I like to challenge guys, and I got ahead of him early," Embree said. "I was put in a position where I could go to my strengths, and that's what I did."

Keith Foulke did the rest, retiring the Yankees in the ninth despite an error by first baseman David Ortiz.

For whatever reason, Vazquez surrendered more runs (four) in the first inning than the three runs he yielded over eight innings in his only other appearance in Boston, a 3-1 loss with the Expos in 2000.

"I don't think it was mechanical," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "He just missed his spots with good pitches."

Of course, Vazquez's defense did him no favors as first baseman Giambi bobbled the first ball the Sox put in play, a grounder by Johnny Damon, for his first error of the season, and Jeter misplayed a grounder by Mirabelli later in the inning for his first miscue of the season. The Sox batted around before Vazquez, clearly dismayed, managed to retire Pokey Reese on his 36th pitch before he returned to the dugout, down, 4-0.

The Yankees recouped a run in the second inning when Posada slammed a 1-and-0 knuckleball from Wakefield near the camera platform in the bleachers for a solo shot, his fifth homer in 10 games. But Mirabelli countered in the fourth inning when he hammered a first-pitch fastball from Vazquez into the Sox' pen for his first homer of the year, making it 5-1.

Other than Posada's dinger, Wakefield faced little resistance until Bernie Williams singled home Matsui in the fifth, cutting Wakefield's advantage to 5-2.

Good thing for Wakefield the Yankees ran themselves out of another opportunity in the sixth inning. After Rodriguez reached on a one-out grounder to short and moved to second on Giambi's second walk of the game, A-Rod and Giambi attempted a double steal on a 3-and-1 pitch to Sheffield. Bad move, since Mirabelli gunned down Rodriguez at third, just before Wakefield fanned Williams to end the threat.

"I was surprised," Mirabelli said. "He caught me off guard. With the count 3 and 1 to Sheffield and runners at first and second with one out, I don't have him stealing that base. That was a huge play."

The Sox scored their final run when Mirabelli doubled on a 3-and-0 pitch from Vazquez in the sixth to knock in Ellis Burks.

Count Mirabelli among those who enjoyed it, even as Francona tried to maintain an even keel.

"Regardless of when you play the Yankees, you get excited to play," Mirabelli said. "There's no downplaying it."

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