Rivera, Yankees squelch Red Sox to clinch finale
Doug Mirabelli knew he and the Red Sox were in trouble long before Al Leiter, the 11th starting pitcher used by the Yankees this season, a major league high, left the mound in the seventh inning, having allowed only three Boston hits en route to a 5-3 New York win.
Mirabelli, up in the fourth, fell behind 0 and 2, and Leiter, staring in at catcher Jorge Posada, began to shake off pitch after pitch after pitch. Mirabelli stepped out to collect himself.
''I asked Posada, 'How many pitches does he have?' " Mirabelli said. ''He shook at least six times."
Leiter, starting a day after the Yankees sent $400,000 to Florida for the 39-year-old, punched out Mirabelli on three pitches, all looking, for one of the lefthander's eight strikeouts. Leiter allowed just one run and now enjoys an impeccable official record of 1-0 after going 3-7 with a 6.64 ERA with the Marlins.
The Sox, meanwhile, have lost 11 of 17, most recently three of four to Baltimore and three of four to New York. Ahead 2 games on the Orioles and 2 1/2 on the Yankees at the All-Star break, Boston leads New York by just a half-game and Baltimore by 1 game. As soon as tonight -- the Yankees visit Texas -- New York could be atop the AL East.
''Coming into the second half, these are the guys we wanted," said Gary Sheffield, who tomahawked a two-run homer in the third off Tim Wakefield (complete-game five-hitter) for a 4-0 Yankee lead. ''We got 'em, and we played well when we needed to."
But, Sheffield added, ''I don't want those guys to wake up. We're getting out of here just in time."
For a few fleeting minutes, it appeared as if the Yankees might have stayed one inning too long. Trailing, 5-1, entering the ninth -- which had seminal moment written all over it -- Manny Ramirez led off with a prodigious blast to left-center off Tom Gordon. He finished his swing with an emphatic flourish that seemed to tick off Posada.
Posada followed Ramirez a few steps up the line, then turned for the third base line, perhaps to say something to Ramirez on his way home. But plate umpire Jerry Meals made sure to occupy Posada as Ramirez completed his trot. The two players did not exchange any words, at least not at that moment.
''We try to play the game the right way," Posada said later. ''That's the only thing I have to say. You're down by three runs."
The hit was the first Gordon had allowed in 29 batters, and he followed it by walking Kevin Millar. Joe Torre, at that point, went to Mariano Rivera, who had converted 22 straight saves since blowing two against the Sox April 5 and 6.
Trot Nixon, Rivera's first batter, grounded to rookie second baseman Robinson Cano, who looked set to turn a double play. Yet he threw well right of shortstop Derek Jeter. Millar barreled into third, while Nixon held at first.
Jason Varitek, pinch hitting for Mirabelli, singled sharply to right, scoring Millar. Yankees 5, Sox 3. Bill Mueller then blooped a single to right, loading the bases.
''We didn't crush balls," Francona said, ''but we stayed on the ball enough to have a legit chance to give him, to give them, the loss."
But up came Alex Cora, who'd never faced Rivera. Cora had entered the game in the eighth inning as a replacement for Mark Bellhorn, who'd jammed his left thumb diving for a Jason Giambi grounder in the fourth. Bellhorn had remained in the game but finally left in the eighth, his thumb too sore to grip his bat (Francona's explanation) and/or his glove (Bellhorn's explanation).
Rivera began Cora with four cutters inside. The first two were balls, then a called strike, then a second strike on a foul ball.
''I was looking in for that cutter," Cora said. ''He made a great pitch."
Cora grounded an outside pitch to third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who threw home, cutting down Nixon. Posada relayed to first for the double play, beating Cora with the throw. Or so umpire Hunter Wendelstedt ruled.
Francona argued, but not vociferously.
''I could go out and make an [expletive] out of myself," Francona said. ''It won't help the call."
Cora wasn't sure if he was safe.
''I don't know," he said. ''I haven't looked at it."
That left Varitek on third and Mueller on second, with Johnny Damon up. A single might have tied the game. Instead, Damon -- who'd doubled off the wall in right-center in the eighth to extend his hitting streak to 29 games -- grounded to Cano to end the game.
The question to Francona, postgame, was why Cora, who's now hitting .199, was allowed to bat, with John Olerud (3 for 13 career vs. Rivera) sitting on the bench.
''Who would take his place at second [if the game went extra innings]?" Francona asked. ''If you have a guy I'll listen."
A reporter suggested Mueller play second, with Millar moving to third base, where he made 28 appearances when he was a Florida Marlin.
''We've talked to Billy," Francona said. ''We're not going to put Bill Mueller at second anymore."
No one played second in the 10th, because there was no extra inning, only an empty field, and an empty feeling.
Wakefield, meanwhile, lost despite pitching a complete game.
''I thought he was terrific," Francona said. ''He gave up five hits -- three home runs, two doubles. That's a weird line."
Hideki Matsui (0 for 12 in the series to this point) doubled in the second, and Posada followed with a homer to right on what looked like a Wakefield curveball for a 2-0 lead. Cano doubled in the third and scored on Sheffield's homer, doubling it to 4-0. Wakefield began the eighth by recording two outs on two pitches before Rodriguez tacked on a run with a titanic solo shot that cleared Lansdowne Street.
Sheffield and Rodriguez, the Yankees' 3-4 hitters, combined in the four-game series to hit .387 (12 for 31) with 4 doubles, 5 home runs, 10 RBIs, and 8 runs scored. As a team, the Yankees homered eight times in the series, giving them 25 in their last 10 games.
But, Francona didn't think this was an overly pivotal weekend.
''If that's what puts us under," he said, ''we're not the team we thought we were."