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Stump Merrill -- you know, the guy who's managing the Yankees this month -- called it "a hell of a hatchet fight," which was a fitting description of what took place here Thursday night.

The Blue Jays and Yankees hacked away at one another for three hours and 38 minutes in a sold-out SkyDome, and when it finally ended, Merrill had escaped with a 7-6 victory and his first three-game win streak as George Steinbrenner's latest skipper.

As Merrill readily admitted, it wasn't a work of art. But the victory provided a momentary lift for a Yankee team that came into this four-game series with the worst record in baseball.

Granted, the Yanks are still a weak, flawed team, one that is last in virtually every hitting category in the American League. But Thursday's win over the division-leading Blue Jays could be a sign that they are beginning to turn things around at last.

"That's our object now," Merrill said, "to turn things around and play the way we know we can play."

Personnel-wise, at least, the Yanks are a team in transition. On this night, it was impossible to tell the heroes without a scorecard insert -- like their manager, none of them was even with the team when the season began.

Alan Mills, a hard-throwing right-hander who played in Class A a year ago, picked up his first major-league victory with two innings of middle relief; Jim Leyritz, the latest contender for the third-base job, drove in the go-ahead run with an eighth-inning single, and Matt Nokes, recently acquired from the Tigers, drilled a 3-run homer in the eighth to provide the eventual winning cushion.

Nokes' blast gave the Yanks a seemingly secure 7-3 lead. But no lead is safe in the accommodating air of the SkyDome, where the Jays have hit 58 of their league-leading 91 home runs.

Rookie John Olerud chased Mills with his second solo homer of the night in the eighth, prompting Merrill to make a hasty call for stopper Dave Righetti to nail down the win.

"I was hoping Alan would get through the eighth and I'd go to Rags in the ninth," Merrill said. "But with all the lefties coming up, I said 'The heck with it, let's go to him now.' "

But as is often his custom, Righetti made things difficult for himself, surrendering a 2-run homer to George Bell (his second of the night) in the ninth before retiring Olerud on a line smash to end it.

"Bell's homer was the hardest ball ever hit off me," Righetti said after recording his 14th save. "That's what happens to hanging sliders."

Righetti happens to be the Yankee with the longest continuous service, and something of a team spokesman. So the New York City media, eager to find a sliver of light in this dismal season, asked if he could sense the team beginning to turn it around.

If the Yankees sweep this series -- and they have now won 27 of their last 37 in Toronto -- could they actually begin to crawl back into the race?

"To be quite honest, this isn't 1985, or '87 or '88," Righetti said. "We know we have to win, but my God, we certainly can't walk into someone's yard 15 or 20 games under .500 and say we're going to win four.

"Get back in the race? I'd just as soon not get into a philosophical thing," he said.

They're still 13 games out, but in the AL East, a .500 record can put you in the thick of the race.

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