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IRABU, GOODEN TEAM TO TAME TIGERS IN FINALE

Manager Joe Torre thinks the New York Yankees are playing some of their best baseball of the year heading into the American League playoffs. So does Detroit skipper Buddy Bell.

"The Yankees are playing great," Bell said Sunday after Hideki Irabu allowed two hits in five innings and the Yankees beat the Tigers, 7-2, for their fifth straight win.

"It looks like they're right on schedule going into the playoffs," Bell said. "Cleveland's going to have a tough time with them if they keep playing this well."

New York, the AL wild card team, opens the playoffs at home Tuesday night against the Indians.

Bernie Williams' 100th career homer was one of four solo home runs for the Yankees in the regular-season finale. Paul O'Neill and Williams hit back-to-back homers in the third inning while Jorge Posada and Mike Stanley also went deep.

Irabu (5-4) and four relievers combined for a five-hitter. Yankees pitchers allowed just five runs and 11 hits in a three-game sweep of Detroit.

"We need pitching to win and we pitched well this series," said Torre, who will announce his playoff rotation after a noon workout today at Yankee Stadium. "We're in a good spot right now because we're playing good."

Dwight Gooden, looking for a spot in the Yankees' postseason rotation, came out of the bullpen for the first time all year and gave up an unearned run on two hits in one inning.

"It's a little different, but it was a lot of fun," Gooden said. "I was just getting a feel what it would be like in the first round of the playoffs if I'm used in the bullpen toward preparation and how many pitches I would need."

Gooden started the sixth and gave up a double to Deivi Cruz, who scored an unearned run when Andy Fox bobbled Brian Hunter's single to right for an error.

Greg Keagle (3-5) was rocked for five runs on seven hits, including three home runs, in two-plus innings.

The Tigers finished the year with a five-game losing streak. But Detroit (79-83) improved on last year's record by 26 games and finished third in the AL East.

"When you really dissect the season, I don't think anybody in this room thought we'd have the season we had," Bell said. "But we have a long way to go. Compared to the team we played this weekend, we're a long ways from that level."

Tony Clark, who finished with 32 home runs and 117 RBIs, said this season should make the Tigers work that much harder to improve next year.

"I think we got a little taste of winning and liked how it tasted," Clark said. "This is not a time to get complacent. It's a time to work hard, beginning with the offseason workouts.

"We'd like to be the ones throwing our hats and gloves in the air next year."

Irabu allowed a run with five strikeouts and no walks in his first start since Sept. 1. He gave up a first-inning single to Bobby Higginson and Travis Fryman's solo home run in the fifth.

Posada led off the second with his sixth homer, a blast off the third deck in right-field. O'Neill hit his 21st home run to lead off the third, and Williams followed with his 21st homer of the season and 100th of his career to finish Keagle. Stanley hit his 16th homer off Dan Miceli in the eighth.

Williams had six RBIs in the series to finish with 100 despite two stints on the disabled list with a pulled hamstring.

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