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Yankees steal the showdown

What a night at Fenway. Six homers flew out of the yard, fans were entranced for the full nine innings, and Alex Rodriguez bested Curt Schilling in a duel for the ages as the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 8-6, in the first of four. There was no curbing any enthusiasm, not even with Larry David sitting in the third row of Henrytown.

Oh, and the win pulled the once-laughable Yankees (weren't they a .500 team a few New York minutes ago?) to within 1 1/2 games of the first-place Red Sox.

You could have scalped your ticket stub for a couple grand in the eighth inning. There was magic in the air, Neil Diamond on the loudspeaker, and Schilling warming up in the bullpen. No bloody sock this time -- just blood, guts, pride, and ego. The Big Schill hadn't pitched for the Red Sox since April 23.

Equal parts Charles Lindbergh, James J. Braddock, and Neil Armstrong, Schilling came into a 6-6 game in the ninth just after 10 p.m. Due up: Gary Sheffield, Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui.

Alas, the slipper wouldn't fit Boston's Cinderella Man.

Connecting on another of his rib-cracking swings, Sheffield drilled a double to center, then Rodriguez crushed a homer off the wall above the camera perch in straightaway center. That would be the same A-Rod Schilling so casually trashed in Florida in February (and in New York in October). As sage Daily News columnist Mike Lupica observed, this homer almost tore through the Red Sox World Championship banner atop the center-field foul pole. Fenway suddenly sounded like church.

And so Day 1 of the Great Schilling Closer Experiment is in the books and it's already getting reviews normally reserved for Ben Affleck.

A-Rod, ever the politician, took the high road and refused to get into any discussion about how satisfying it must have been to bludgeon the Big Schill after being verbally abused for all these months. But he did acknowledge this game could do for the Yankees what the infamous July 24 brawl game did for the 2004 Sox.

''This is something we can build on, for sure," said Rodriguez. ''. . . It's an unbelievable feeling. A Hall of Fame pitcher on the mound and Gary Sheffield with a big double. Just to get the job done there was very satisfying."

''Tonight was a big game," said the ever-calm Joe Torre. ''We can't make something out of one game because there are 10 more left on this trip and it's going to be a very tough trip."

This is supposed to be the weekend the $200 million Yankees make their big move. Yesterday's New York Post back page exclaimed, ''Yanks Can Sweep Into First at Fenway," while the Daily News settled for, ''Here They Come."

Of course, when those pages went to press, no one in New York was aware that surprise stopper Chien-Ming Wang was bound for the disabled list with a possible rotator cuff injury. Wang was supposed to start tonight's game. Instead, it will be the immortal Tim ''Don't call me Otis" Redding.

''I've had better days," sighed Yankees general manager Brian Cashman as he chatted with Sox owners John W. Henry and Tom Werner.

''We just do what we always do," said Derek Jeter. ''Look at Boston, they've had injuries. Other guys just have to step it up."

In an effort to step things up, the Yankees worked out at sweltering Fenway at 2 p.m. The whole squad (except for those returning from the All-Star Game in Detroit). It's a Yankee tradition, this post-All-Star workout on the first Thursday after the break. Still, it was pretty weird seeing Jeter, Matsui, and friends taking batting practice and shagging flies five hours before the first pitch.

Thursday afternoon, post-All-Star-break workout? In recent years, the Red Sox were happy if Pedro Martinez merely made it back in time for Friday's game after the break.

''No thanks," said Trot Nixon when told about the Yankee workout. ''I love the time off during the break. I think the break should be five days every year. But I suppose people will make something of it if they beat us tonight. Like they wanted it more or something."

We won't say that. But we will say the Sox let Mike Mussina off the hook. We will say Boston squandered leads of 4-0, 5-3, and 6-5. We will say that Slowhand Bronson Arroyo (10 hits, three homers, five runs) didn't have much and that Mike Timlin might be bothered by the Sox going to Schilling as closer.

The final three games of the series aren't likely to pack as much punch as the opener. Nixon drilled a three-run homer in Boston's four-run first. Johnny Damon extended his hitting streak to 26 games, guaranteeing another sleepless night for DiMaggio (Dom, not Joe). Arroyo gave up a couple of Pesky Pole homers in the second -- blasts that prompted NESN to drag out some vintage Chris House footage. Nixon had a chance to catch Jason Giambi's towering shot, but a fan in the front row made the grab. In fairness to this fan, he was not reaching over the rail. Sheffield almost knocked down the wall with a homer to center in the fifth. David Ortiz hit one of his parabolic blasts into the bullpen in the seventh.

And then there was Schill. In the ninth. The new closer.

''I am disappointed in what happened," said the veteran. ''But I'm going to have the ball tomorrow night in the seventh, eighth, ninth inning again so I can be as miserable as I want, but this is over. This is one night. I got beat by two of the game's best hitters . . . but you certainly can't make more out of it than it's a game we lost and should have won, and I'm the reason we didn't."

They go back at it tonight. Schilling will be ready. A-Rod will be ready. And another 35,000 will be ready.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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