Exit Sandman. Now that is the way to start this important series. Not by pounding Orlando Hernandez, not by feasting on the Yankees weak middle relief. No, the way to send the strongest message is to score two runs off Mariano Rivera in the top of the 9th inning at Yankee Stadium -- and go to sleep with a 3-2 victory and a puny 2½ deficit in the AL East.
Bronson Arroyo pitched very well through two rain delays and Johnny Damon was the hitting star -- belting a solo home run in the third and the game-winning RBI in the 9th, but it was Manny Ramirez that led the highlight reel -- sprinting to the left field wall in the 5th inning to rob Miguel Cairo of a home run.
The catch came right after John Olerud had homered to give New York a 2-1 lead. When Manny came down, I was convinced a fan in the first row had caught the ball. I swore I saw the white in his hands. ... But wait -- Ramirez was holding a baseball over his head -- with a beautiful shit-eating grin on his face. ... He caught it! ... He leapt and hung up there above the wall for an extra fraction of a second and caught the ball. Cairo had no idea. He pumped his fist jogging around first base, he high-fived Luis Sojo at third and pointed to the sky as he crossed the plate. Only when he got to the dugout and wondered why his teammates were not greeting him did he turn around. Manny Caught The Ball!
Then The Ninth: Trot Nixon began with a 7-pitch walk, with Rivera hitting 94, but missing his spots, possibly overthrowing. Dave Roberts ran for Nixon. Jason Varitek struck out on three pitches (his 4th K of the night), but Roberts stole 2nd without a throw on strike 3. Rivera fell behind Kevin Millar 2-1 and after checking Roberts at second three times, he hit Millar on the left shoulder. Kapler replaced Millar at first as a loud "Let's Go Red Sox!" chant filled Yankee Stadium.
Rivera threw Orlando Cabrera a ball and -- surprisingly -- Mel Stottlemyre came out to talk; Rivera had thrown 15 pitches, only 7 for strikes. After the meeting, Cabrera grounded a 2-1 pitch through the right side (Cairo had no chance to glove it) and into right field. Gary Sheffield's throw was late and up the third base line and Boston had tied the game at 2-2.
Kevin Youkilis struck out on an 0-2 pitch around his eyes for the second out. On TV, Paul O'Neill noted that even after that big whiff, "Mariano doesn't show too much emotion on the mound." That was about to change. ... Damon lofted a fly ball to shallow right center. The ball seemed catchable, but CF Kenny Lofton decided early not to try for it and he let it fall. Rivera couldn't believe it. He turned towards the outfield, eyes wide, and seemed to say "Catch the ball! C'mon!" before hanging his head and jogging to back up the plate. ... In the aftermath, Jim Kaat noted that Bubba Crosby was the Yankees best fielding center fielder ("no question") but Crosby watched the play from the bench. ... And if Lofton had dove and missed, Sheffield was right there to back him up.
Mark Bellhorn grounded out and after 27 pitches, Rivera walked off the mound. ... Keith Foulke came in and after getting Jorge Posada on a fly ball to center, he struck out Jason Giambi and Olerud for his 30th save. ... Rivera has blown 4 saves this season, 2 of them against Boston. Since 2001, Rivera has a 1.89 ERA and .208 opponents batting average against everyone but Boston; his numbers against the Red Sox are 3.38, .284.
The Yankees play Frank Sinatra's version of "New York, New York" after each win. When they lose, they play a different version of that song. So my message to the Red Sox this afternoon is: "Make Liza Sing!"