NEW YORK - He will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, a name that future generations of Yankee fans will remember with the same awe and reverence as Mantle, Berra, and (dare we say it) Gehrig and Ruth. In the new Yankee Stadium, he may even be honored with his own monument.
But when it comes time to recall Mariano Rivera at his most vulnerable, chances are the Red Sox will figure in those stories, more often than not. The Sox have seen him at his best; they have sent him to some of his most crushing defeats.
Yesterday at the Stadium, the Sox witnessed one of his greatest escapes, falling to Rivera and the Yankees, 2-1, after scoring a run in the ninth and loading the bases with no outs.
The Yankees, with just one healthy position player on their bench, thus avoided losing a third straight time to the Sox and falling into an even deeper depression on a day they pondered placing outfielder Johnny Damon on the disabled list for the first time in his career.
"We gave ourselves a great chance with really good at-bats," manager Terry Francona said, "and then Mariano went to work and pretty much carved us up for the next three hitters.
"He left himself no wiggle room, and then he didn't need it.
"We've seen him have clean innings. We've seen him do that, get in a little bit of trouble and be able to get out of it. We're probably one of the few teams that have been able to come back and beat him, but we weren't able to do that today."
The Sox did not touch old warhorse Mike Mussina, who had not beaten them in more than two years and looked close to applying for his AARP card in April, when they roughed him up twice within a five-day period. He looked hittable in the first, but Dustin Pedroia was erased by rookie Brett Gardner, playing left in place of Damon, when Pedroia tried to stretch a single into a double, and Mike Lowell struck out after a double by J.D. Drew, a hit batsman (there would be seven of those on the afternoon, four in Sox uniforms), and wild pitch put runners on the corners.
But until the ninth, the Sox did not advance another runner past first base. Drew took a called third strike after Pedroia's two-out single in the third. Manny Ramírez was hit again to start the fourth; the next three batters went down quietly. Jacoby Ellsbury singled with two outs in the fifth, but was thrown out stealing by Jose Molina, the third time this series Ellsbury has been apprehended on the bases (the other two times he was picked off).
Drew walked with one out in the sixth, but Mussina caught Ramírez looking and Lowell flied to center.
The Yankees, meanwhile, twice loaded the bases against Sox rookie Justin Masterson but had scored just two runs. Melky Cabrera singled home one in the second, Gardner's sacrifice fly scored another in the sixth, but two terrific defensive plays - Pedroia's diving stop of Wilson Betemit's smash with the bases loaded in the third, and Kevin Youkilis's snag of Jason Giambi's liner with Alex Rodriguez on third in the fifth - kept the game close.
Both bullpens continued to hang zeroes after Mussina and Masterson each departed after the sixth. Jose Veras and Kyle Farnsworth faced the minimum of six Sox batters in the seventh and eighth; Javier Lopez and Mike Timlin were not threatened in their inning apiece of work.
But in the ninth, with a sellout crowd of 54,990 assuming that Rivera would attach his usual coda to this Yankees victory, the Sox awakened. Drew led off with a single. Ramírez was hit by a pitch for the third time, something that had not happened to a Sox player in at least 50 years. Lowell lined a single to right, scoring Drew, with pinch runner Brandon Moss stopping at second. Youkilis was hit by an 0-and-2 pitch by Rivera, who had not hit a batter all season and had walked just three in 37 1/3 innings.
"We had an unbelievable opportunity to tie the game," Lowell said. "Bases loaded and nobody out, but I guess that's why he's a Hall of Fame closer."
Coco Crisp struck out on three pitches, swinging feebly at the last. Jason Varitek, who has hit Rivera well in his career (.333, 1 HR, 5 RBIs), popped a 2-and-0 pitch to first base. That brought Julio Lugo to the plate. Lugo, who had entered the game after Sean Casey pinch hit for Alex Cora in the eighth, is Boston's worst hitter with runners in scoring position this season (.157, 11 for 70). He ran the count to 2 and 2, then went down swinging.
"I had an opportunity," Varitek said. "I felt comfortable. The pitch probably was up just enough that I cut through it. I wanted to stay aggressive there, I just didn't get it done."
The win pulled the Yankees within five games of the second-place Sox, and they remained nine games behind leader Tampa Bay. The huge relief on the Yankees side was matched by the sense, in the visitors' clubhouse, that they'd let a great chance slip away.
"Absolutely," Lowell said. "Not if we'd gone three-up, three-down. But once we scored a run and had the bases loaded . . . Mariano hitting those two guys, that was a gift. But you either come through or you don't.
"We don't have to hang our heads, but we definitely had a chance."
Someone seeing the seven hit batsmen might conclude it was a typical exercise in Sox-Yankees hostilities. Nothing could be further from the truth, Francona insisted, and the anecdotal evidence would tend to support his contention. There wasn't a beanball in the mix.
"Seven hit, but I saw a lot of offspeed stuff," Francona said. "I don't think it was an issue on either side. Hopefully, nobody will write that. I don't think we questioned their intent, never mind our own."
And if Ramírez felt like a human piñata, he wasn't saying. He walked out of the clubhouse with David Ortiz, six minutes after game's end.