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Gaining momentum

Yankees take opener, cut Sox' lead to three

NEW YORK -- Across nine autumns nothing like this had presented itself. A Red Sox team, entering the Bronx for a September series, leading the American League East. And so, a pregame convoy of New York media gathered around Terry Francona yesterday afternoon bent on writing the story of the teams that reversed roles, the Red Sox in possession of two distinctions (a championship, and a division lead) the Yankees desperately want.

''I hope we end up in first place," the manager deadpanned, dialing down the urgency of the question and the response it merited. ''It's just not relevant yet."

Perhaps, but relevancy is increasing by the day, especially when the Sox lose in the manner they did last night, coughing up a two-run lead in an 8-4 loss in which they tied a season high by committing four errors.

That included two errors on the same play during New York's four-run sixth inning, turning a 4-3 Sox deficit into an 8-3 game. One of those miscues was Edgar Renteria's 25th; no player in baseball has more.

The Sox, who pulled into Yankee Stadium up by four games, now lead the division by three, and face the prospects of leaving for Toronto tomorrow night ahead by only a game with 20 to play.

Few Sox would contextualize the importance of one night, during which it took 3 hours 40 minutes to play a nine-inning game before 55,024 who didn't seem to mind the lengthy evening. But, at least one, David Wells, ventured to call today a big game.

''Today would be big to pick us up," said Wells, a loser for only the third time in his last 20 starts. Wells went on to cite the danger of replicating the club's last road trip, a 4-6 journey through Detroit, Anaheim, and Kansas City, on which ''we got out butts whipped."

''You don't want to fall into that," he added.

Wells was blunt because the Sox made it too easy for New York last night.

Fifty-three days had passed without these teams meeting. The last time they did, July 17 at Fenway, Mark Bellhorn sprained his left thumb fielding a Jason Giambi grounder (they would surface again on the same field as teammates). The Sox' loss that night lowered them to 50-41, while the Yankees improved to 49-41.

In the nearly eight weeks without seeing each other, the Sox got better, on paper and on the field, going 32-16, the Yankees 29-20.

The Sox in that time added Tony Graffanino, Gabe Kapler, and Jonathan Papelbon, among others, while the Yankees made myriad additions and deletions. The notable newcomers included two new arms in the rotation (Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small), and one in the bullpen (Alan Embree). And there were others, not so much new as renewed (Giambi in that span played in 46 games, hitting 16 home runs and knocking in 38 runs).

The Sox finally got a look at Small last night, and they've been notorious this season for struggling against pitchers they're seeing for the first time.

''It's tough facing guys you've never faced, that your team has never faced," Johnny Damon said.

The Sox went into last night with only 13 career at-bats, and one hit, against the 6-foot-5-inch, 33-year-old Small. After falling behind, 1-0, after one, the Sox tagged Small for three runs in the second, sending seven men to the plate.

Jason Varitek led off with a broken-bat single (his splintered bat barrel actually stuck into the ground, standing up), Bill Mueller singled to right, and Graffanino singled to left, loading the bases. Damon followed with a sacrifice fly (RBI No. 71), and Renteria delivered a two-run double off the wall in right.

''He was all right," said David Ortiz, who went 0 for 3 against Small with a walk. ''We'd never faced the guy before. He got away with it. He was throwing his pitches. I didn't see anything crazy out there."

Not a glowing review, but, ahead, 3-1, the Sox did little more against Small, who went 6 1/3 innings, allowing four runs on nine hits. The Yankees, meanwhile, chipped away, scoring single runs in each of the first four innings, two on solo homers.

Jorge Posada fell behind, 0 and 2, in the second before launching a Wells cutter into the Sox bullpen in left-center for his 16th homer.

''Threw him a cookie," Wells said. ''Right in his wheelhouse."

The next inning, the third, Alex Rodriguez tied it with a solo shot, his league-leading 41st, on a full count. The ball left over the short wall in right, much to the displeasure of Wells, who thought he'd had Rodriguez punched out on a 2-and-2 pitch ruled a ball by home plate umpire Bill Miller.

''Unless I'm blind, that's right down the middle," Wells said. ''He missed a pitch."

Rodriguez has now hit eight home runs off Wells, making the lefthander the most regular home run victim of Rodriguez's stellar career. Derek Jeter's single in the fourth made it 4-3 New York. The Yankees then lowered the boom in the sixth, batting around to score four times.

Ruben Sierra lined out to begin the inning, and the next hitter, Posada, grounded a shot to first baseman Kevin Millar's right that Millar made a spectacular play to grab. However, he lost the ball transferring it to his throwing hand, and Posada had an infield single.

Commence unravelling. The next batter, Robinson Cano, sliced a single to center that bounced off Damon's glove. Posada was charging home, as Damon relayed to Renteria. Renteria was about 40 feet beyond where the infield dirt ends and the outfield grass begins. He fielded Damon's throw, turned and threw. Either he lost his grip or attempted to hold up his throw.

Regardless, the intention doesn't change the result. The ball went almost straight down into the grass and carried no more than 30 feet. Posada scored, and Cano advanced all the way to third, with two Boston errors on the play.

Wells got the No. 9 hitter, Matt Lawton, to ground out, but was lifted, after just 5 2/3 innings, with a runner aboard.

''You get the out, and all of a sudden you get pulled out," Wells said. ''I don't like it. Sixth inning, it's still early. I feel like I'm back in the National League."

Begrudgingly, Wells relinquished the ball, and Chad Bradford, on in relief, relinquished runs. Bradford got ahead of Jeter, 0 and 1, but found himself in a battle that ended in a 10-pitch walk.

''Oh, man," Bradford said of Jeter's ability to work the count. ''I was hoping to make a pitch and he kept fouling them off."

The next three Yankees (Bernie Williams, Rodriguez, and Giambi) delivered RBI singles, upping the New York lead to 8-3.

The Sox scored one in the seventh, cutting it to 8-4, with the bases loaded for Varitek against Tom Gordon. But Varitek grounded to Cano, who began an inning-ending, 4-6-3 double play.

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