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YANKS COVER FOR RIVERA

You can now exhale, Yankees fans. You too, George Steinbrenner.

After too many home losses for their demanding owner's liking, the Yankees squeezed past the Red Sox, 6-5, on Wednesday night for the second time in as many days. Another crisis has been averted -- second time in as many days. Another crisis has been averted -- at least for the time being.

But if Mariano Rivera duplicates his ninth-inning meltdown again real soon, all bets are off.

Rivera became the winning pitcher when Jorge Posada drew a bases-loaded, one-out walk in the bottom of the ninth, but Yankees starter Mike Mussina deserved the decision. He limited the Red Sox to an eighth-inning home run by Shea Hillenbrand before he left with a 5-1 lead and the first two runners on in the ninth. As he has so many times before, Joe Torre called on Rivera.

Except this time, Rivera, who had been used sparingly in the Yankees' recent five-game losing streak, was uncharacteristically ineffective. Boston tied the score on a two-run single by Nomar Garciappara and two-out singles by Hillenbrand and Bill Mueller. Rivera was fortunate to get out of the inning tied. When Trot Nixon singled off the glove of first baseman Todd Zeile, Red Sox third base coach Mike Cubbage sent Hillenbrand home, only to have second baseman Alfonso Soriano, who caught the deflection off Zeile's glove, throw out Hillenbrand at the plate.

"That was a very heads-up play," said Posada. "That was the key to the win."

There were others. The Yankees didn't mope after Rivera's collapse. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Hideki Matsui, who earlier had doubled in two runs off Red Sox starter Derek Lowe, lined a double over the head of left fielder Manny Ramirez, Boston's Dr. Strangeglove. When Ramirez compounded the situation with an errant throw to third base, Red Sox manager Grady Little decided to intentionally walk Soriano, who had homered in the seventh inning for a 5-0 lead, and Jason Giambi, to load the bases.

The strategy backfired when Posada walked on a full count after a 2-2 pitch that Brendon Lyon and catcher Jason Varitek thought was a strike. "It was close, but it was not a strike," said Posada.

Jason Varitek went absolutely apoplectic after ball four, slamming the ball to the turf as Matsui trotted home with the winning run. He also turned to West and made an emphatic, punch-him-out strike-three call of his own that, he thinks, earned him an ejection, even though the game was over.

"I absolutely right now, as upset as I am . . . I have no comment," said Varitek.

The Yankees felt differently about their victory. Yes, they were close to blowing it. But they didn't.

"I wish I could change what I did," Rivera said of his first blown save. "But who won the game? That's what counts."

Posada said the star closer was rusty because of recent inactivity.

"That happens," Torre said. "Mo was throwing hard and they were hitting it hard. I hope it doesn't happen that much more."

"People usually don't hit Mariano like that. It doesn't happen too often," said Derek Jeter. "He's picked us up so many times, it was good for us to pick him up."

Just as it was good to cut Boston's AL East lead to a half-game.

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