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Boone knuckled down

Third baseman was an unlikely offensive hero

Aaron "Bleeping" Boone?

Of all the heroes who could have emerged from last night's ultradramatic 6-5 Yankees victory, the absolute least likely, at least from a batting standpoint, was the man who won the game with an 11th-inning walkoff homer off Tim Wakefield. Boone didn't even start last night's epic; he came in as a pinch runner in the eighth inning and stayed in the game at third base.

When he stepped to the plate to lead off the 11th, it was his first at-bat of the game. It also was his last. He jumped on a Wakefield knuckler on the very first pitch and drilled it into the left-field stands, instantly turning Yankee Stadium into a combination of Mardi Gras and Woodstock. At the same time, he crushed millions of hearts of Red Sox fans, convinced that this was going to be the year.

"I still can't put [the hit] into words," a champagne-soaked Boone said afterward. "Just to have had this opportunity . . . So many people had a hand in this. It's humbling. This game humbles you all the time in good ways and bad ways. Lately, it's been humbling in a bad way. That's how it is. It's humbling."

Asked if he had ever had such a moment at any time in his life, Boone cracked, "This ranks right up there." He was joking.

Said Yankees manager Joe Torre, "I put in my defensive guy and he hits the game-winning homer. He has struggled offensively since he's been here, but what a huge home run. For three innings I was waiting for Manny [Ramirez] to turn his back to the stands and it finally happened."

Boone had gone hitless against Wakefield in the two games the Boston knuckleballer had pitched in the series. Said Boone, "I don't particularly like facing him. I haven't squared up too many against him. It's like a crapshoot. I considered taking a pitch, but then I decided just to put a good swing on the ball. He got it up there. I finally put a good swing on one. I guess it was time. It was nice."

Up until that dramatic blow, Boone's hitting could be summed up in one word: brutal. In the first six games of the series, Boone hit a lusty .125, with two hits in 16 at-bats. Both hits were infield choppers in Game 5; one of them could easily have been scored an error. His homer raised his ALCS average to .176.

In Game 6, Boone had looked particularly pathetic, going 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, failing to get the ball out of the infield. Overall, in the postseason, he hit .188 -- six hits in 32 at-bats and he almost made you wonder if the Yankees wouldn't be better off going somewhere else. As it was, Enrique Wilson started last night's game at third base, but primarily because of his history of success against Pedro Martinez.

But sometimes, it is one of the little people like Boone who decide these big games. He joins Bucky Dent and Brian Doyle as unlikely Red Sox killers and nightmare makers. Boone did manage 24 homers and 96 RBIs this past season with both Cincinnati and the Yankees. But 18 of the dingers and 65 of the RBIs had come in the new, hitting-friendly park in Cincinnati. With New York, he hit only .254 with six homers and 31 RBIs in 54 games. In other words, Mike Schmidt he isn't.

The Yankees acquired Boone July 31 from the throwing-everything-overboard Reds in exchange for Brandon Claussen, Charlie Manning, and the obligatory check from George Steinbrenner. Boone had been good enough to be named to the National League All-Star team and was a two-time National League Player of the Week.

"We traded for him for a reason," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "We're just tickled to death."

Boone occasionally showed a flair for the dramatic with New York. His first home run as a Yankee was a game-winning three-run shot in the ninth inning off Jorge Julio Aug. 15 to give the Yankees a 6-4 victory in Baltimore. Almost two months to the day, he did it again, this time on a bigger stage with much bigger repercussions.

Third base has been a revolving door for the Yankees in the Joe Torre era. Boone is the 26th player to start at that position under Torre, who came aboard in 1996. The Yankees started the year with Robin Ventura and Todd Zeile sharing time at third base. Neither is with the team now.

Boone came aboard and stabilized the position, at least from a defensive standpoint. Last night, he helped get his team into the World Series with one swing of a bat that, until then, had been ultra silent.

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