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COUNT ON IT: WILLIAMS' NUMBER ISN'T UP

He's still at it after all these years, scoring from first on a ball stroked to the gap, delivering the two-out single that drives home a vital run, fighting back from another early season slump to punctuate his reputation as one of the most productive and dependable players of his era.

One of these days, age will finish Bernie Williams, force the jersey off his back, and that'll be it, the last time a New York Yankee wears No. 51.

It's a certainty, is it not? Whenever Williams, 36, calls it quits he'll receive the same honor afforded Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle. He'll become the 17th player or manager in the history of baseball's most successful and storied franchise to be deemed incomparable, to have his jersey number retired and displayed as an example for those who follow.

How could it be any other way?

Williams is the CVS of the Yankee record book. He's everywhere. He'll take a run this season at Yogi Berra's hold on fifth place in all-time hits. He's odds-on to overtake Ruth and advance to third in doubles. Among the major offensive categories, only in triples does he rank outside the franchise top 20.

"He's high on the list of Yankee greats," catcher Jorge Posada said Thursday night. "It'll be fun to see what he ends up with."

Whether Williams finishes as a career .300 hitter depends on if he can summon a vintage season, rediscover a semblance of the stroke that won him the American League batting title at .339 in 1998. Averages of .263 and .262 the last two years have whittled his lifetime mark to .301, and this year hasn't helped.

He's a notorious slow starter, but his struggles this season attracted worrisome gazes. He was batting .143 as recently as last week, when he was placed ninth in the order for the first time since July 2, 1995. Concerns arose over whether the game had passed him by. But he accepted the demotion graciously, then responded by going 3 for 4 with a homer and a double, which is pretty much how he's answered adversity throughout his career.

"I asked him if he was politicking for that ninth hole," manager Joe Torre said. "Bernie is unlike any other player I've ever managed. He's never changed. I've been here 10 years now, and he's the same person, personality-wise and respect-wise, that he was the first day I showed up. It's refreshing."

His average has been rising, now up over .250, and Torre's advanced him in the order in acknowledgment of his progress. Williams, batting second, was a vital contributor Thursday night as the Yankees beat Toronto, 4-3, to complete a two-game sweep of the Blue Jays and become the first team this season to defeat them in a series. He produced New York's first hit off Gustavo Chacin, the Jays' standout rookie starter, a single leading off the fourth. Then he sprinted home on Gary Sheffield's double to the left-center gap.

"Bernie can still move once he gets going," Posada said.

Williams' two-out single in the fifth drove in Tino Martinez with what proved to be the decisive run as the Yankees built a 4-0 lead and used their best bullpen effort of the season in support of starter Mike Mussina.

"Bernie's hit was huge," said Torre, who had to pull Williams from Wednesday's game because of a sore knee that required more treatment Thursday night. "That two-out base hit was a really big hit for us."

Gaudy regular-season numbers reveal only a fraction of what Williams has meant to the Yankees over his 12 full seasons. It's in the postseason that he's left his indelible print on franchise lore. No Yankee has played in more playoff games than Williams, who has appeared in 115. He ranks first in home runs by six, with 22. He ranks first in RBIs by 16, with 79. No wonder he owns four World Series rings.

His seven-year contract expires after this season. It's conceiveable this could be his last go-round, at least with the Yanks. They won't be in any hurry to reissue his number. No hurry at all. Because don't you retire No. 51?

"I would think so," Posada said. "Yeah, I would think so."
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com