NEW YORK -- Baseball cards would be worth less than the bubble gum, Kevin Millar suggested, if they carried only April statistics. Yet this April could mean more than many in Red Sox lore if Terry Francona's crew manages to weather the absence of Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon, and Byung Hyun Kim in the ancient struggle for supremacy against the Yankees.
Never mind that Millar marked Boston's return to the scene of last October's Game 7 nightmare by dropping to seventh in the batting order for the first time in his Sox career. Or that second baseman Mark Bellhorn entered the game hitless in his last 13 at-bats amid lingering discomfort from a pitch that caromed off his left elbow six days earlier. Or that third baseman Bill Mueller played in his 16th straight game because Boston's depleted bench was so thin Francona couldn't afford to rest him.
It was only April, but Millar and his boys of spring last night played like it was a pennant race as they brushed off the ravages of their early-season attrition and inflicted a horrible hurting on the Yankees in the House That Ruth Built. Millar, Bellhorn, and Mueller led the way as they homered in the fourth inning to knock in five runs and break open a 1-0 lead in an 11-2 whupping in the opener of a three-game showdown before 55,001 at Yankee Stadium.
"We're never going to forget Game 7, but we weren't scared to come in here," Johnny Damon said. "And we did what we needed to do. It was a great way to take a victory here."
Millar and Bellhorn struck back-to-back solo shots to help chase beleaguered Yankees starter Jose Contreras before Mueller unleashed a three-run blast off reliever Donovan Osborne to gift-wrap a 6-0 lead for Derek Lowe. Before it was over, the Sox piled on with a run-scoring double by David Ortiz, a two-run double by Pokey Reese, an RBI single by Damon, and a solo homer by Manny Ramirez.
It was only April, but the Sox improved to 4-1 against the Yankees and eased the pain of their fall-from-ahead loss to the Blue Jays behind Curt Schilling in Toronto the night before. And they were competing without Garciaparra and Nixon.
"That's why it's important for us to hold our ground," Millar said. "Once we get to full strength, this team is going to be so much more dangerous. But right now our pitching is carrying us through and we're playing well enough to get some wins and get that good feeling going."
Lowe did his part, shutting out the Yankees through six innings before he surrendered a two-run shot to Hideki Matsui in the seventh. Bouncing back from a woeful outing on 10 days of rest against the Yankees, Lowe scattered six hits and two walks to improve to 2-1.
"It's good to win these games in your division," Lowe said, "but no one's going to remember this if you don't play well all year."
They sure played well all night, beating the Yankees in every facet of the game. The victory seemed so secure in the ninth inning that Francona gave Rule V lefthander Lenny DiNardo his major league debut. DiNardo, who had never pitched more than seven games above Single A (all at Double A for the Mets), retired Gary Sheffield, Matsui, and Bernie Williams in order to complete the blowout.
"It was, honestly, one of the best feelings of my life," DiNardo said. "I can't even describe the emotions that are going through my head right now. It's unbelievable. It's fantasy camp for me being with these guys. It's a dream come true."
DiNardo followed Mike Timlin, who pitched two scoreless innings in relief of Lowe to help extend the bullpen's scoreless streak to 15 1/3 innings.
"We needed the pitching," catcher Jason Varitek, "but we came up with some big hits early and it helped to make the difference."
Bellhorn, who was playing through some residual stiffness in his elbow, got the Sox started by singling home Ellis Burks with the game's first run in the second inning. Burks, who himself is battling elbow and knee woes, singled and stole second to set the table for Bellhorn.
Before it was over, the Sox collected 12 hits and seven walks against four Yankee pitchers as every Boston starter but Varitek logged at least one hit.
"It felt like we had one through nine involved offensively," Millar said, "and that's big."
With Contreras laboring, Millar began the barrage in the fourth by homering to left. Millar had yet to catch his breath when Bellhorn followed suit, going deep to right for a 3-0 lead. The back-to-back homers were the first this season for the Sox.
But the rally had just begun. Reese then flared a broken-bat single to right and stole second with Damon at the plate before Contreras walked Damon in his final act of ignominy. As boos rained down on him, Contreras was lifted for Osborne, who managed to throw only two pitches before Mueller boomed a fastball into the seats in left for his three-run shot.
The last time the Sox hit three homers in an inning was Sept. 22, 2002, when Damon, Garciaparra, and Cliff Floyd uncorked them in Baltimore.
"Nomar, how great is that guy? And Trot," Mueller said. "You always try to have your best team on the field at all times. It's going to be nice to have a full squad and be able to go out there and compete."
As for Lowe, he allowed base runners in every inning but two, yet rose to each challenge until the seventh. After Alex Rodriguez drilled an opposite-field double to right with two outs in the first and went no farther, the Yankees did not reach second base safely again until Matsui's homer.
Lowe was aided by a nifty sliding catch by Damon on a line drive by Sheffield to end the first and by Yankees catcher John Flaherty grounding into double plays in the second and fifth innings.
"Johnny made the fantastic play to help me out in the first," Lowe said, "and after that I got into a pretty good groove."
It was only April, and it mattered.