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Closing time is flexible

Rivera ready and willing to go as long as it takes

Yankees manager Joe Torre says he'd rather not bring in his righthanded terminator in the eighth inning. "One and done" is the ideal routine for Mariano Rivera. But when the leaves are turning and the season is on the line, "two and through" is the operative phrase.

So it was Saturday, when Rivera came on to rub out six Red Sox in a row to nail down a huge 4-3 victory in Game 3. So it figured to be again last night, when Torre was fully prepared to work his peerless closer for the final two innings. And tomorrow . . . and tomorrow . . . and tomorrow.

"Any chance we get to win a ballgame, we're going to seize that opportunity," Torre said before his club took the diamond for Game 4.

Rivera, who preserved two of New York's three victories over Minnesota in the Division Series, has three straight two-inning saves, running his major league postseason record to nine, three ahead of Goose Gossage and Tug McGraw. And if pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre were to wave his right hand in the seventh, Rivera would promptly answer the bell.

His job description says he has to close. It doesn't say how long it has to take.

"I'm just trying to do my job," says Rivera, who hadn't allowed a run in his last 23 innings covering 19 appearances. "Do my job and do it good."

Nobody has ever done it better in the postseason; Rivera's 28 saves are the major league record. And this October, the man they call "Mo" has been in champagne form: four appearances (two against Boston), three saves, a 0.00 earned run average, an .045 opponent batting average, and six strikeouts in seven innings.

"Back in August . . . he was trying to make good pitches instead of just trusting his stuff," says Torre. "Once he started letting it go, his ball became that more lively."

Once he emerged from his midsummer doldrums (three blown saves in four chances), Rivera became the terminator of old, finishing the regular season with a 5-2 record, 40 saves, and a career-low 1.66 ERA in 64 appearances.

"Right now, Mo is throwing as well as he has in his whole career and we are just catching him at that time," says Sox skipper Grady Little, who going into last night had watched 10 of his batters manage but one hit (Todd Walker's Game 2 single) against Rivera this series. "So our game plan is try to keep him out of the picture. We have to try and get a lead early and try to keep him from being a factor."

The Sox did that the first time they saw Mike Mussina in Game 1, bashing three homers and running up a 4-0 lead that made Rivera irrelevant. But when the Sox drew within a run after seven innings Saturday, Torre had no compunction about bringing in his howitzer early. "I had nowhere else to go," he says. "Nowhere else to go."

As soon as Rivera began scuffing the bullpen mound, he was inundated with a waterfall of broad-A, dropped-R vitriol from the Fenway bleacherites.

"Like always," he shrugs. "They call you names and everything else. But I was used to it. I focused on what I had to do."

What Rivera had to do was vaporize the first six men in the Boston lineup, starting with leadoff man Johnny Damon, who was 3 for 3. Rivera got him to hit a tricky bouncer that looked as if it might spin away for an infield hit until Rivera ran it down himself.

"When I charge the ball, I'm going to get the ball," he says. "I don't know how, but I make sure I get the ball."

Whatever it takes, however long it takes, is the Rivera guarantee.

"I do anything to help my team to win," he vows.

Had the teams played Sunday night, Rivera was ready to answer the call. So with the gift of an extra day's rest, he was unquestionably good for two last night and this afternoon and as long as this social tea continues.

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