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Yankee arms: They had legs

NEW YORK -- One shining inning against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, it turns out, sent the wrong message. If you want to understand what happened to the Red Sox this weekend, you start with Worcester's Tanyon Sturtze.

Sturtze's unexpected pick-me-up of Orlando Hernandez Friday night -- 3 2/3 innings of one-hit, scoreless relief that had the Yankees poised to win before the Sox skunked Rivera in the ninth -- should have been the tipoff the Bombers might have something left to throw at the Sox, despite Kevin Brown's TKO loss to a clubhouse wall.

After Jon Lieber and Mike Mussina did to Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez the last two days in Yankee Stadium what the Europeans did to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the Ryder Cup (and can Manny Ramirez still be the leader in the clubhouse in the MVP race when he failed to get a hit in this September showdown?), the pinstripers' pitching appears in far better shape than advertised entering October, despite Brown's broken hand.

The three starters Yankees manager Joe Torre threw at the Sox over the weekend -- Hernandez, Lieber, and Mussina -- are now a combined 9-1 in September. El Duque washed out after three innings because of two rain delays and a high pitch count Friday night, but Lieber held the Sox hitless for 6 2/3 innings Saturday and Mussina followed up yesterday by allowing just six singles and Orlando Cabrera's pop fly double in seven innings in an 11-1 rout of the Sox and Martinez. For those scoring, that made it Bombers 25, Sox 5, in two Boston losses that just about erased whatever suspense remained in the American League East race.

"We know we're evenly matched," Torre said. "We know they're good. We know if we don't pitch well, we'll get our brains beaten out."

Barring a Bomber collapse without precedent in the team's history, the Sox are destined to finish runners-up to the Yankees for the seventh straight season. Who will go deeper into October remains to be seen, but the forecast is considerably brighter in the Bronx after Lieber and Mussina both shut down baseball's most prolific lineup, which was helpless even against Sturtze, who had been torched in Kansas City for seven runs in two-thirds of an inning in his previous appearance.

"We hadn't seen these guys during their run the last six weeks when they were beating everybody," Torre said. "We were curious."

It went beyond curiosity. Torre needed some answers, namely whether his arms would be twisted by a Sox lineup that had run roughshod over everybody else for weeks. Maybe there will be a different outcome in Boston this weekend, when these teams tangle three more times, but for now, Torre can say, with conviction: "We feel good about where we are."

A pitching staff that had been piling up some lopsided losses lately -- 22-0 to the Indians, 14-8 and 7-0 to the Orioles, 17-8 to the Royals -- permitted the Sox exactly one lead (non-Rivera division) the entire weekend, on Johnny Damon's home run in the third inning Friday, and that lasted just one inning.

"We knew from spring training we had [the ability] and experience," Torre said. "We didn't have the depth. Lieber was out, Brownie was out, [Javier] Vazquez had the conjunctivitis, Moose [Mussina] missed some time. It was tough, not only because we didn't have those guys, but other guys were trying to go outside themselves. Obviously, we're better the more people we have."

They're better when Mussina is pitching like the guy who won 52 games in his first three seasons in New York, instead of the guy puttering along with an ERA hovering just under five runs per game.

"I'm glad to be back out there and contributing and pitching well," said Mussina, who struck out eight and dodged early trouble in the second when, with two on and one out, he induced Cabrera to roll into a force play and retired Bill Mueller on a comebacker. "I feel good. I'm throwing the ball the way I think I can throw consistently."

Mussina was asked about the number the Yankees did on Ramirez, who got the ball out of the infield once in three days, and David Ortiz, who broke up Lieber's no-hit bid with a home run but otherwise was a nonfactor.

"We might have changed our approach a small bit, but you've still got to make good pitches," he said. "You hold those two guys down, you have to handle the other guys, too. You've got the defending batting champion [Mueller] hitting ninth. That's a pretty good lineup. These three games, we did a pretty good job paying attention to everybody.

"No question, they've been playing the best baseball of anybody in the last month. They cut a 10-game lead down to two. But we've been playing pretty well, also. The way they won the first game was tough for us, but we came out the last two days and played very good baseball and pitched extremely well."

Gary Sheffield, the locals' choice for MVP, followed Alex Rodriguez's first-inning single with a home run off Martinez for a 2-0 lead. It was the first of three home runs the Yanks would hit off Martinez en route to eight runs, the most they've ever scored against the Sox ace. But even from the big boppers, most of the talk centered on the Yanks' pitching.

"It was all about the Moose today," said Sheffield, who in midgame took a couple of cortisone shots in his aching shoulder that he'd put off for this series.

What did it do to the Sox, getting slapped around like this the last two days?

"I don't know," Sheffield said. "I worry about our team. Our pitching staff set the tone for the series. Regardless of what people say and whatever, we think we're the best team in baseball."

The Sox had a chance to change that perception this weekend. Now?

"I only worry about Boston," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said, "when we play them." 

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