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Rivera forced to enter on tense, emotional night

WashPost: Yankees closer comes through in game he shouldn't have pitched in
The Yankees were forced to turn to relief ace Mariano Rivera in Tuesday's Game 1 of the ALCS.
The Yankees were forced to turn to relief ace Mariano Rivera in Tuesday's Game 1 of the ALCS.Kathy Willens / AP

You want history, all new Red Sox-Yankee history, full of fresh lunacies that match the legend and raise it to a higher power? Then you got just what you wanted in Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of an American League Championship that was awaited breathlessly for 51 weeks and now, already, is on the brink of surpassing our idiotic expectations.

This was, and always will be, the night that Mariano Rivera flew back five hours from a funeral in Panama to get the last four outs of a brutally tense 10-7 Yankees victory, a night when he arrived at the park so late that his manager Joe Torre said he never spoke to him "until I shook hands with him after the game."

It will be the night when, mourning the death of two of his wife's relatives electrocuted in a grotesque, horrible accident while cleaning his swimming pool on Saturday, that Rivera cried in the morning with his family, mourned all afternoon as he flew, then needed every iota of help that his teammates could provide to earn this harrowing save.

"It was tough, leaving my family. . . . Believe me, I wanted to stay home. [But] I have a job to do and 24 players depending on me. . . . I'm tired. But my mind kept going. And my teammates helped me out big time and made this happen," Rivera said. "My teammates treated me like teammates."

After all he's done for them, they should. But most of all, Rivera never should have been in this game at all, much less with it on the line and taking a place in this rivalry's endless lore. In fact, this was a game so stunningly tense, so draining and yet inspirational for both sides that it is hard to tell which team is left with momentum. Sometimes a near comeback, like the amazing one enacted by the Red Sox, is so harrowing, so alarming to its adversary that it is a kind of victory.

The Red Sox not only trailed 8-0 but were facing the prospect of having a perfect game pitched against them after Mike Mussina retired the first 19 hitters. When Mussina lost his perfect game, you went to bed. Admit it. If you did, you missed an hour or so of baseball that was as wonderful as any since . . . well, last year's ALCS.

The Boston fellows were not just far behind, they were on the verge of humiliation. Curt Schilling, the man brought to End the Curse because he'd defied and defeated the Yankees -- and their nightclub dancers "Mystique and Aura" in the 2001 World Series -- had been bashed from the mound with six runs in just three innings. He endured chants of "Who's your daddy?" while he pitched, then after he had left for the showers, was serenaded by a chorus of "Where is Schilling?"

Somewhere, up in the luxury suite of owner George Steinbrenner III, Donald Trump was probably doing a command performance of "You're fired!" for the pleasure of the Boss. Then, all hell broke loose, just like it's supposed to, just like it always does, as if you can't stop it, but have to watch with your jaw slack, your expectations suspended not merely from inning to inning but from generation to generation as these teams battle as if some ludicrous eternal stakes, not a mere ballgame, were on the line.

First, Torre lapsed. He snoozed. The Yankees manager watched Mussina give up one hit, then two, then three. But what's the harm. Then he left the Moose on the mound to allow yet another fourth ringing base hit. By the time Tanyon Sturtze arrived, Jason Varitek was all cranked up to smash a home run over the right field wall to cut the Yankees margin to 8-5.

But that wouldn't matter, couldn't matter. Could it? The Yankees' bullpen, once it gets to Tom Gordon in the eighth and Rivera in the ninth is virtually a lock to close any door. However, this night was different. Perhaps the real reason Torre gave Mussina extra rope was in hopes he would not have to call on the emotionally exhausted Rivera, who made it to the ballpark after taking a $50,000 chartered flight from Panama (paid for, of course, by King George). And, of course, perhaps Gordon could finish matters cleanly himself. But he couldn't.

And that's when this game, like the clanging of some enormous bell above the Big Ballpark, announced that no matter how much it seems that matters are decided between these bitter rivals, they never truly are. "Fight until the last out" is usually a cliche. But not when you have annual brawls and grudges and 72-year-old Yankee coaches who try to charge the other team's star pitchers in the midst of melees. Not when the Boston catcher, just a few months ago, smashed the Yankees' $250-million third baseman in the face with both hands in another bench-clearing ode to all that Fox Television holds dear.

In the Boston eighth, Bill Mueller beat out an infield hit that New York second baseman Miguel Cairo couldn't quite hold. Then Manny Ramirez got jammed by a fastball, but managed the humblest flare of a single to left that anybody in the Bronx ever saw. (New England is, of course, now standing, en masse.) In other postseason series between other teams, sensible or at least plausible things happen at such junctures. Not, of course, with the Red Sox and Yankees. David Ortiz, Boston's 139-RBI cleanup man hit a three-run homer, inches over the left-center field fence to tie the score 8-8.

Okay, no he didn't.

Ortiz's blast landed about one foot from the top of the fence near the 399-foot sign. In almost any other park, it would have been over the wall. Ortiz's blast landed squarely in the glove of left fielder Hideki Matsui, who had already driven in four runs off Schilling and stood to be the game's hero. But when glove, ball and Matsui hit the wall together, the ball bounced out, two runners scored, Ortiz ended at third with a triple.

And what had to happen actually did happen. Torre had to call Rivera with the tying run just 90-feet from home to face Kevin Millar, the original "Cowboy Up."

At this point, the gods took pity. Enough is enough. At least for a Game 1. And for a fabulous Hall of Fame reliever who's as eminently classy a gentleman as any in the game. "He's special," said Torre. "I certainly did want to use him in the eighth. But I've never trusted anyone more than Mariano."

Millar flied out weakly to end the eighth. And then the Yankees did what great teams, and especially great teammates, do. They scored insurance runs for Rivera, a man who needed a policy -- paid in full, with double indemnity clauses to boot -- if any pitcher ever did. Not just any Yankee would do as the hero to relieve the pressure on Rivera. It had to be one of Torre's original gangsters, one of the old unbeatable '98-'00 three-peat Yankee champions.

Bernie Williams may not be what he once was. But he has come to the wire with a hot bat. And he used it to lace a two-run double over the head of left fielder Ramirez, who raced back on the ball like a man in pursuit of a hand-grenade with the pin pulled out. Manny barely missed. Just as Matsui had barely failed. And the score became what it should have been in perfect theater: 10-7, just the three-run lead that ought to relieve the pressure on a closer in dire distress.

Yet the ninth inning could not pass harmlessly into lore, now could it? Of course not. The Red Sox sent Mueller, the defending AL batting champion, to the plate with two men on base. Yes, Mueller, whose homer off Rivera in July had given Boston a 10-9 win in another emotional regular season chapter of this rivalry. Symmetry, as always.

What would be the perfect ending? Why a double play, right? But not just any double play -- a DP started by Rivera himself. So that's what happened.

Now, we can all come back for Game 2 on Wednesday night to see the nation's other Great Debate. This one will between the 56,135 fans of Yankee Stadium and Pedro Martinez.

They will ask, "Who's your daddy?"

And Pedro will try to show 'em.