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They're just dandy now

Red Sox to face a Yankees team that's righted ship

NEW YORK -- Two months later, it's a tossup which was a greater shock, the sound or the silence. The sound was that made by fans in Yankee Stadium booing the previously untouchable Derek Jeter, captain of the Yankees, in the midst of the worst slump of his career.

The silence was in the vacuum left by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who had cried on Opening Day but uncharacteristically kept in check emotions that surely were roiling after the Sox swept three straight from the Yankees in the Bronx after taking three of four the previous weekend in the Fens. It was the Sox' first three-game sweep of the Yankees since 1999.

At the end of play that day, April 25, the Sox were 12-6 and leading the American League East, a game and a half ahead of the fast-starting Orioles, with the Yankees 4 1/2 games in arrears.

In the New York tabloid, Newsday, a headline screamed: "Dream Team Has Met the Enemy, and It Is Them."

Anyone walking into Yankee Stadium tonight, when the Sox and Yankees resume their rivalry with games over the next three nights, will not miss the change in atmospheric pressure from two months ago.

Since being cuffed around by the Sox, the Yankees are 39-15, the best record in baseball in that span, and are coming off Sunday's doubleheader sweep of the crosstown Mets. They hold a 5 1/2-game advantage over the Sox, who have been treading water since, at 30-26, and are in some jeopardy of being rendered obsolete in the AL East race, with the wild card their sole hope of gaining entry into October's postseason tournament if they allow the Yankees to open too great a lead before the All-Star break.

Too early for a division race to be entering critical mass? Hardly. Since the introduction of the wild card in 1995, only one team leading a division by as many as five games at the All-Star break has failed to hold that lead. That was the Colorado Rockies, in 1999. So it is incumbent upon the Red Sox to gain some ground and quickly. But to do so, they'll be facing a Yankee team bearing little resemblance to the club they handled with such ease in April.

That team scored three runs or fewer in 12 of its first 19 games, including a 2-0 shutout in the Stadium April 25, when Pedro Martinez, who will be pitching Thursday night, threw seven scoreless innings. In that game, five Yankees were called out on strikes against Martinez. Jeter ended the weekend 0 for 25 en route to a slump that reached 0 for 32 at its nadir. The previous weekend, in Boston, Alex Rodriguez, who replaced Jeter as the most marked man in Fenway Park because Yankees management succeeded where Sox management couldn't, acquiring A-Rod in a Valentine Day's trade, had just one single in 17 at-bats, whiffing six times while making an error.

In hindsight, Yankees manager Joe Torre divined A-Rod's problem.

"A-Rod was trying so hard, he couldn't see," Torre told reporters last weekend.

The early struggles of Jeter and Rodriguez raised anew questions of whether they could co-exist, especially in the wake of Rodriguez's position change from short to third just so he could wear pinstripes. No one is asking those questions now.

Jeter, still hitting as low as .200 on May 26, is batting .402 (43 for 107) since then, and already has 13 home runs, three more than he had all of last season. A-Rod also broke his early funk and has 19 home runs, one fewer than AL leader Manny Ramirez, and has been batting just under .300 (.299) since the Sox left town.

The Yankees are far too proud to co-opt a Boston rallying cry, but they have laid claim to the come-from-behind style that characterized the "Cowboy Up" Sox of last season. They have come from behind to win in 28 games, including six games in which they were trailing by four or more runs. Three of those wins came in one homestand. The Sox had six such wins all of last season.

The Bombers also have come back to win four times in games in which they were trailing by five or more runs. That didn't happen once in the previous three years. With Bernie Williams (appendectomy) healthy again, their early season struggles to score are a distant memory. In the 54 games since they were swept by the Sox, they have hit 92 home runs, and are batting .277 as a team.

The one break the Sox may catch this week is that Yankee slugger Jason Giambi has been suffering the effects of a flu-like virus for the last couple of weeks and is just 13 for his last 69.

But while the every-day lineup of eight All-Stars is now performing to expectations, the Yankees' starting rotation remains a source of concern. Just as Sox officials privately predicted, righthander Kevin Brown has broken down, his strained back putting him on the disabled list. Mike Mussina has recovered from his early inconsistency but has been bothered by a groin problem, while Jon Lieber, trying to make it back from Tommy John surgery after missing much of the last two seasons, is 1-4 with a 7.48 ERA in his last five decisions. The Yankees had hoped Brown might make it back in time to face the Sox Thursday, but that won't happen.

Barring a trade -- and the Yankees lost out to the Chicago White Sox for Seattle's Freddy Garcia -- they will pitch a rookie, lefty Brad Halsey, who was cuffed around by the Mets Saturday. Providentially, the best thing to happen to the Yankees' rotation was when the family of Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras escaped from the island last week. Reunited with his wife and two daughters, Contreras struck out a career-high 10 batters. And the Yankees' bullpen, with Tom Gordon dominating in a setup role and Mariano Rivera 24 for 25 in save opportunities, remains as dominant as ever.

The Sox' visit comes between home-and-home sets between the Yankees and Mets.

"That's a helluva sandwich," Torre said over the weekend.

So it's devour or be devoured.

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