Yankees can be happy about this
Forget all the nonsense in the stands. The baseball is what matters.
Let the Red Sox fans jeer Alex Rodriguez. Let them wear the blond wings and scream "Mine!" every time a pop fly is hit in his direction and rhythmically chant "A-Rod, A-Rod" when he's facing Jonathan Papelbon with two away and an 0-2 count in the ninth inning of a tie game. Let them have their fun. The guy may have one or two peccadilloes, but he remains an immensely gifted player and at the end of a week in which he made headlines for all the wrong reasons and picked up a delightful new nickname courtesy of an exquisite New York Post headline, the guy had the last laugh, athletically speaking, didn't he?
"Stray Rod this," he said, as he deposited that Papelbon pitch into the Red Sox bullpen to give the Yankees a 6-5 victory over the Red Sox last night. No, make that earlier today, the game needing 4 hours and 4 minutes to complete its rather amazing business.
"It's got to take some of the sting out of it [the bad press], I would think," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "Obviously, when you're dealing with a personal situation it's more that just a game at that point in time. He's had to put it off to the side and play the game. It's not easy to do."
The Big Picture significance may be nil as far as the American League East is concerned, but for the Yankees every win is vital if they are to have any hope of clawing their way into the postseason. "It was a big win for us," said general manager Brian Cashman. "Right now every win is big for us. We're not worried about Boston. We're only worried about us."
But it was Boston, and it had to be as satisfying as anything that's happened to the Yankees during this disappointing season. For in order to pull this one out they had to score twice against a Boston bullpen that has been one of the team's great strengths. The Yankees tied the game with a run off Hideki Okajima in the eighth and they won it with A-Rod's dramatic, stadium-silencing blast off Papelbon in the ninth, and that had to make for a pleasant trip home for the beleaguered Yankees.
By the time the Red Sox see the Yankees again, they will have played more than 130 games, weather permitting, and who knows what will have happened by then? But there won't be many games with more drama or more twists and turns than this one.
Consider what took place in the last two innings.
1. Asked to protect a 5-4 lead, Okajima gave up a leadoff two-strike single to countryman Hideki Matsui and then surrendered a booming triple to right-center off the bat of Robinson Cano. "He killed that ball into the wind," said Torre.
2. With the go-ahead run perched on third and no one out, Okajima shut the door, striking out Josh Phelps, retiring Melky Cabrera on a chopper to third, and then getting Johnny Damon on a hard grounder to first.
3. With two men out and nobody on in the Red Sox eighth Coco Crisp drew a walk and Julio Lugo was credited with a single when his bounder to A-Rod's left caromed off his glove into left field. That brought up Dustin Pedroia, who already had two doubles, including one off the Wall in the sixth that very nearly produced a sixth Boston run. (Lugo was called out at the plate by umpire Chris Guccione). Pedroia, who is launching nightly rockets reminiscent of Early Nomah, smashed a sure triple to the gap in right-center. But Bobby Abreu somehow ran the ball down to save two, and possibly even three, runs.
"It was a phenomenal play," saluted Sox skipper Terry Francona. "He was playing so shallow to try to eliminate the run and I actually thought he looked to center and then realized it was him and made a phenomenal play, a game-changing play."
4. A-Rod hit the clutch two-out, two-strike home run off Papelbon to put the Yankees ahead.
5. David Ortiz led off the Red Sox ninth and battled Mariano Rivera for 11 pitches -- including seven fouls in a row -- before lining hard to Abreu. "With 3-4-5 up you knew it wasn't going to be a 1-2-3-yawn inning," Torre declared. Rivera fanned Manny Ramírez and Mike Lowell to record his fifth save of the season.
This could have been yet another wrenching loss for the Yankees, because they had a 4-0 lead behind Andy Pettitte heading into the bottom of the fifth. What the rest of us did not know was that Pettitte had done something to his back in the third inning, and it started to become a problem in the fifth.
He grimaced on the pitch that struck out Lugo with the bases loaded and no one out in the fifth, and Torre was second-guessing himself about leaving the lefty in after Pedroia emptied the bases with a double and Big Papi brought him home with a single to right, to which Abreu affixed a two-base error. Torre wanted no part of Manny, issuing the third intentional pass to the left fielder in two games, but Kevin Youkilis broke the tie with a sacrifice fly.
"He [Pettitte] went through the fourth and fifth," Torre said. "You could see it was a little stiff. And then Jorge [Posada] called us out after he struck out Lugo. He said he was all right, and you wanted to believe him even though you knew he wasn't all right. Then you saw the rest of it."
Josh Beckett got himself in to the seventh with that 5-4 lead. The Yankees made him throw 117 pitches to get 19 outs. He said he had lots more in the tank, but this is 2007 and you know how it goes. He wasn't bad, but he was nowhere near as efficient as in his last start (when he faced the minimum through six), and by the time it got to be midnight the rain-drenched faithful who were left in the park barely could remember who had started the game.
Nope, it came down to the bullpens and this time the Yankees prevailed. Luis Vizcaino tried to give it away, but Kyle Farnsworth, Brian Bruney. and, of course, Mr. Rivera kept the Red Sox off the board in the last three innings, with a big assist from Abreu.
You might know it would be A-Rod. This is why you have to laugh when people equate Sport with Entertainment. You can go to a trillion concerts and you won't get an ending dripping with this kind of irony.
"We've seen him do that before with that pitch ahead in the count like that," Francona said. "I would say almost every other hitter in the league, it's a great pitch. He has the ability to hit that out like, maybe only Manny, Vladdy [Vladimir Guerrero], a couple of others . . . I thought Pap was really throwing the ball well."
The Yankees aren't winning the division, but they're only six out in the wild-card loss column. That's six with 108 to play. In case you're wondering.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.