If he were a boxer, Jay Witasick would be the guy with the busted jaw, one eye walloped shut, and a fat lip. He'd also be wearing the crooked smile of the pug who got beat up bad but won the fight.
That was how Witasick left his first day of work at Yankee Stadium, by first blowing a save for shaky starter Randy Keisler, then a 6-0 lead before riding off the bruised winner on the coattails of Tino Martinez' first-ever pinch-hit home run in the seventh.
And thus the Yankees won a twisting, rousing 8-7 affair with the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians on Monday night. Keisler and Witasick blowing a big lead wasn't the kind of suspense manager Joe Torre needed, but his two pillars in the bullpen, Mike Stanton and Mariano Rivera, at least let the Yanks stagger away victorious.
Even Rivera's perfect night was not seamless. He came into a 8-7 game with two outs in the eighth and Ellis Burks nearly tied it with a deep drive to right that became nothing more than a long fly. Three fine defensive plays -- the first a kick save by Rivera himself to stop Roberto Alomar's liner from going up the middle -- preserved the win in the ninth.
"Big win. Real big win," Martinez said. "We lost a tough one (Sunday) and losing this one would have been tough, when you have a 6-0 lead. Maybe this will jump start us and get us going in the right direction."
If there existed a real possibility of gloom Monday night -- the Yanks blew a winnable game Sunday at Tampa Bay, and faced the prospect of coming home to play the first-place Indians, who were going to throw two left-handers at the Bombers -- Martinez provided the light.
"It just shows you," Stanton said, after striking out the two batters he faced, "that the magic is still there."
The Yankees were trailing, 7-6, when Martinez redirected a slider from reliever Ricardo Rincon into the right field seats. Earlier in the at-bat, Martinez drove one foul near the same spot as the homer.
"This was big for Tino and big for us," Torre said.
Big was the operative word Monday, and all that was missing was another New York appearance for the hated John Rocker. Rocker warmed up twice -- to hearty booing -- but was never called to action.
The Yankees' new "savior" was very human, and Witasick is probably sure that the cheers never turned to boos so quickly when he was pitching in San Diego. Keisler precipitated the meltdown, unable to record an out with a six-run lead in the sixth, and Witasick made his debut to the cheers and hopes that he would be the much-needed bandage for the Yankees' bullpen wounds.
But Witasick's first batter, Marty Cordova, singled to drive in a run to make it 6-3. The old stadium shook as Witasick struck out the dangerous Jim Thome with runners at the corners and none out. That was as good as it got.
Einar Diaz singled. Pinch-hitter Kenny Lofton doubled. Omar Visquel singled and Randy Keisler's 6-0 lead was a distant memory.
It didn't end there. Witasick struck out Ellis Burks, who started all the trouble with a single off Keisler to lead off the inning, then walked Roberto Alomar to load the bases with two outs for Juan Gonzalez and his 394 career home runs.
But even when Witasick won, he lost. Gonzalez's weak grounder was mutilated by Scott Brosius, Lofton scored, and the Cleveland comeback was complete.
Witasick steadied himself in the seventh, and when it was over, his winning line -- two innings, four hits, three runs, two earned, four strikeouts -- will hardly be the stuff of legend.
Then the cool demeanor gave way to the truth: Witasick has never been involved in this type of environment in his career. "There are a lot of All-Stars walking around in this room. It was weird to see Derek (Jeter) at short," Witasick said. "He tried to make me feel comfortable, but I had to look down a couple of times to see if I was really wearing pinstripes."
The Indians exceeded the Yanks' six-run second, but that explosion was looking very much like the story line. First, they broke free from longtime nemesis Chuck Finley with a funky lineup that sent him to the showers after a mere 3 1/3 innings -- and 11 hits and six earned runs -- of work. Second, they had the young Keisler poised to dance his way to a win. None of that happened.