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Calm Johnson collected the victory

The permutations had not filtered down to the Yankee players after their loss to the Red Sox Friday night. They assumed the AL East would come down to the last day of the regular season, but by the time Randy Johnson was icing his powerful left arm around the eighth inning yesterday, the math whiz, Stanford's Mike Mussina, had figured it out.

And not long after that, the Yankee lockers were being covered in plastic. The champagne was rolled into the locker room. The Indians lost. The Red Sox lost. And because they had a better head-to-head record with Boston, the Yankees had won their eighth consecutive AL East title.

This was sweet music to Johnson, who ran his record to 5-0 (3.63 ERA) in six starts against the Sox. He overcame a shaky first and second inning and lasted 7 1/3 in yesterday's 8-4 victory. All of the blemishes were from home runs, a two-run shot by Manny Ramirez in the first and a solo homer by Tony Graffanino in the seventh.

Johnson (17-8) did a nice job composing himself on a day that could have gotten away from him. A few close ball and strike calls early in the game appeared to have Johnson ready to blow his stack.

''The last thing I wanted to do was get thrown out of another game," said Johnson, referring to a Sept. 16 start against Toronto in which he lasted 1 2/3 innings before being ejected for arguing balls and strikes. ''But for the most part, everything went well.

''I just tried to stay calm and trust my ability and I did that all day. I never deviated from what I wanted to do, and that is throw strikes and get ahead on the count. As the game went on, I felt a lot more comfortable and I think it's totally because we had a nice lead out there. No lead is ever too big in this ballpark, so I eventually got my mechanics back and I was working well in the strike zone and I felt comfortable out there."

He had one conversation with plate umpire Gary Darling after the first inning. His teammates, particularly catcher John Flaherty, did a good job of making sure Johnson stayed composed.

He allowed only two runners from the third inning on. He gave up a leadoff double to David Ortiz in the third, but stranded him. He allowed the homer to Graffanino that barely made it over the wall.

If this is what the Yankees got Johnson for -- to beat the Red Sox, pitch the big games -- he did the job.

''It's nice to know we don't have to win tomorrow's game," said Johnson, who was periodically sprayed with champagne by Aaron Small and Mariano Rivera. ''We'll go out and do our best, but we can get prepared for the playoffs now."

Johnson warmed up no more than 10 minutes before the game, feeling he wanted to leave most of his best stuff on the field rather than in the bullpen. He started by walking Johnny Damon, and after Damon stole second and moved to third on a fly ball to right, he struck out Ortiz. But Ramirez clobbered a fastball for a two-run homer to cut the Yankee lead to 3-2.

In the second, Johnson walked leadoff hitter Bill Mueller, then struck out Doug Mirabelli and Trot Nixon before a Graffanino single to left and a walk to Damon loaded the bases.

He fell behind, 3-and-0 to Edgar Renteria, but it was right here that Johnson turned his outing around.

''I battled back, and I don't even know what he did, grounded out or flew out," said Johnson, who actually fanned Renteria.

''I was a little off on my control today and I put myself in a situation where they had opportunities. But when I had to make a pitch, I did."

Johnson and Sox starter Tim Wakefield had squared off Sept. 11, a 1-0 Yankee win in the Bronx.

''To get that many runs off Wakefield after battling him, 1-0, in New York, you don't expect to get that many runs off him as well as he's been pitching," said Johnson. ''Neither of us were as sharp as we were two weeks ago.

''The team here is relentless. They have a very good offensive team. Their fans are tremendous, so to accomplish what we did out there today was impressive for our team.

''I didn't feel I was as animated or had as much adrenaline in me as I did when I faced Boston the last time in New York. I think I was very focused, though, because I realized what was at hand and I didn't want anything to get out of control."

Johnson was philosophic about the peaks and valleys of the Yankees' season.

''Every team goes through ups and downs," he said. ''There's not one team that goes through a six-month period that rattles off win after win. You have some injuries and you have some hitters who get cold and you have pitchers who go through some inconsistency.

''We had injuries to Kevin Brown and Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright and I was inconsistent at times. It was quite a task for the Yankee staff here to put us in position that we're in right now. Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon did an unbelievable job. Just getting my mechanics right took so much effort from so many people here.

''It's a great feeling, but it's only the first step of many games that we're going to have to win to get where we need to get."

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