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For Rivera, day of tragedy and triumph

NEW YORK -- Of course he would be here. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera understands duty and obligation. He has been the most dominant closer in baseball for the past decade, a lofty title that is impossible to achieve unless you are a person who is rich in confidence, poise, and responsibility.

Above all, a closer must be reliable.

Last night, in the face of tragedy and tears and unspeakable sadness, Rivera was exactly that.

Just hours after he buried his wife's cousin, and the cousin's 14-year-old son -- both electrocuted Saturday in Panama on Rivera's property -- Rivera slipped on his pinstriped uniform, slapped his glove for luck, then pitched his team out of a monstrous jam in the eighth inning.

Then he came on in the ninth and slammed the door on a Red Sox lineup that never, ever gives up.

With the welcome sight of Rivera on the mound, the Yankees were able to hang on to a 10-7 victory in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, after spending much of the afternoon drawing up contingency plans in case their redoubtable pitcher wasn't available.

Rivera attended the funeral at noon in Panama, then was whisked by a private plane back to the States. Departing without his wife Clara, and the rest of his family, was the most difficult part of his journey.

"It was hard leaving my family, knowing they are still in pain," he said. "It was tough. To be on that plane alone, thinking . . . having tears come out of my eyes . . . it wasn't easy, those almost five hours on that plane. But knowing that my wife and my family were praying for me kept me going."

He arrived at Yankee Stadium at 8:53 p.m., and one hour later he joined his mates in the bullpen. By then, it was already the bottom of the fifth, and his team was cruising, 6-0, behind perfect pitching from starter Mike Mussina.

For most of the evening, it appeared the Yankees would not have to bother their closer. There were some Yankees who felt it would be best to give Rivera a chance to catch his breath, to grieve properly, to avoid any more whirlwind on a day that had already been exhausting.

The closer, however, did not agree.

"I was coming here to pitch," he said. "I wouldn't be on site if I wouldn't pitch today."

He was needed when things got tight, as so many other times before. Mussina was perfect through 6 1/3 innings, but the first smudge on the would-be masterpiece led to another, and another, and suddenly, just like that, Mussina's perfect game, no-hitter, and shutout were history.

An 8-3 cushion against this unpredictable, unflappable Red Sox lineup is not safe.

In the end, Yankees manager Joe Torre couldn't leave Rivera out of it. Former Sox pitcher Tom Gordon had gotten himself into a major mess with two outs in the eighth, coughing up a triple to David Ortiz that brought two runs around and made it an 8-7 ballgame.

Asked if he would have rather given Rivera the night off, Torre answered, "Not necessarily. I didn't see him until I shook his hand at the end of the game, but [pitching coach] Mel [Stottlemyre] went to the clubhouse to talk to him, and Mariano told him, `I'm fine. I'm ready to go.'

"He's special. There's no question about it."

Rivera sized up Kevin Millar with two outs and the tying run on third. He tricked one of Boston's true clutch hitters into a popout to short. The exhalation from the New York dugout was visible. That's what Rivera does for his team. He is the calming influence, the reassuring pat on the back, the last line of defense that rarely bends, and almost never breaks.

It was not a flawless performance, that much is true. Jason Varitek and Orlando Cabrera singled with one out in the ninth, leaving Rivera to face Bill Mueller, who had taken him deep earlier this season.

Not this time. The Yankees closer coaxed Mueller into a game- ending double play. As he had done earlier in the day in Panama, Rivera made sure everything was as it should be. "Everything was done," he said. "I was trying to do everything as quickly as possible. I wanted to stay there, definitely, I wanted to be with my family. But there's nothing I can do, so I talked to my wife and [explained] that I needed to be here."Believe me, I wanted to stay home and be with my family, but I have a job to do, and 24 players that were waiting for me."

Those players greeted Rivera with smiles and hugs and a warmness that can make a man forget even the worst kind of pain.

"I came here, and my friends, my teammates treated me like a king," he said. "It was something special."

The king of closers was happily distracted last night by another win over the Red Sox. He savored the moment, but the exhaustion was already setting in by the time he left the park.

Baseball is only a game. Rivera has won many -- and lost a few, as well. This 10-7 Yankees victory was as satisfying as many others, but it will not erase the heartache. When Mariano Rivera went home last night, his family was still suffering in Panama, while he was in New York, the city that never sleeps, left to suffer alone.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist.

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