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Yankees machine yet to get in gear

NEW YORK -- If the Red Sox and Yankees had played this game in October, we would have called it a classic. Red Sox 3, Yankees 2 in 12 innings, at a sold-out Yankee Stadium.

This was not October. This was April 24. They played yesterday as if it were Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

The Yankees' Mariano Rivera and Boston's Keith Foulke fired deep into extra innings. The Red Sox loaded the bases in the 11th, only to have Rivera strike out the menacing David Ortiz to get out of the inning. In the bottom of the 11th, Gary Sheffield began the inning by getting hit by a pitch and ended it when he was caught trying to steal second.

Manny Ramirez doubled to lead off the 12th, went to third on a ground out, and scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly.

There's probably nowhere else in the country where the alarm bells ring so loudly after 18 games in a 162-game season.

If I were a Yankee fan, I'd worry just a little bit. Boston has beaten the Yankees five out of six games to begin the season. Last season it took Boston until July to win a series against the Yankees. The Red Sox have won the first two series this season.

It's worth noting that the Orioles have been around first for much of the season while the rest of the baseball world has been preoccupied by its own spring madness.

Manager Joe Torre brushed aside suggestions that the Yankees will get in gear after this series. "I don't want to wait for the Red Sox series to be over for that to happen," he said. "A lot of things worked well. We're just not hitting."

Don Mattingly, the Yankees' new hitting coach, is beginning to field more questions than he would like about the team's woes at the plate. As Mattingly walked out of the Yankees' clubhouse yesterday, he said he was not necessarily concerned with all the slumping, but he also added that he did not believe the hitting would just "come around."

"You have to work at it," he said, "and our guys are working."

Alex Rodriguez is showing more than flashes of why he is a great player. He hit his third home run of the season, his first at Yankee Stadium as a Yankee. But his fourth-inning home run was the first Yankees ball hit out of the infield.

Rodriguez also made a great defensive play in the third inning to save a run. He made the play with a man on first and second. Kevin Millar hit a hot smash over third base. Rodriguez made a diving stop, tumbled over, gathered himself, and threw out Millar. Yankees fans stood and applauded the play, some probably felt a little silly -- they should if they didn't -- that they had had the nerve to boo this guy. Rodriguez is not the problem on this team.

In fact, there are signs here and there that this big, bad Yankees machine, defensively, was getting itself in gear: Bernie Williams tracked down a fly ball in deep right-center to end one inning; Sheffield made an outstanding over-the-shoulder catch of a blast by Ortiz in the 10th. Problem is, these were separate snapshots -- highlights -- from individual All-Star careers. They were not connected. The multimillion-dollar Yankees are not connected.

"Right now," Yankees starter Kevin Brown said, "we're just not getting it done. We're just not clicking. That's the bad news, but the good news is also that we're not clicking. Your job, in this situation, is to do everything you can to make that turnaround happen as quick as possible."

Brown's theory is that slumps will come. The idea is to get them out of the way early. "If you're going to do it, might as well do it now," he said, "and hopefully be hot at the right time when the season is on the line, coming down to the wire. You'd rather be hot at that time."

The hitting will come.

The Yankees' pitching is out to sea. In seasons past, whenever their ship was listing, Andy Pettitte would stop the bleeding, then Roger Clemens would demoralize the opposition. This pitching staff has no anchor. The anchors are in Houston. Clemens is pitching as if he were a 30-year-old.

In their place, the Yankees have assembled an array of impressive names to carry the staff. So far they have not. This was Brown's role yesterday. This was going to be Brown's killer start. He committed two errors in the second inning. These new Yankees have to adjust to playing with an All-Star cast, playing under intense scrutiny that is only beginning. As Torre said after yesterday's loss, "There's no room for sympathy in this game." And far less in this stadium.

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