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VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Unusual spring sounds

Boo birds chirping throughout Bronx

NEW YORK -- Jose Contreras was fortunate that the Yankees pumped some music through the public address system while he was trudging off the mound in the fourth inning last night because that muffled some of the incessant booing.

But Contreras still absorbed enough of the verbal abuse, a long, loud chorus of displeasure for a job not well done.

The Yankees are in a tricky position with Contreras, their most delicate of starters. There is no insurance policy, no escape hatch, no go-to-Tampa and get your mind and your arm remedied plan that they can use with the baffling Contreras this time. He must be one of their five best starters but, so far, he has been abysmal.

There Contreras was in the fourth, sitting in the corner of the dugout by himself after giving up back-to-back home runs. Contreras looked like the loneliest man at Yankee Stadium, a frustrated pitcher searching for answers and finding none in an 11-2 loss. It was the second time in six days the Red Sox had trampled Contreras.

Everything was supposed to be different for Contreras against the Red Sox last night. The Yankees spoke about how he might have been tipping his pitches in a messy start in Boston last Sunday, and promised that he would be a different pitcher.

But even with a more condensed delivery, Contreras was skittish again, which is what the Yankees have been too often this season.

Sure, the Yankees have only played 17 games. Sure, losing four of the first five with the Red Sox is not so dreary a start that the Yankees already need to inquire about Randy Johnson's availability. But general manager Brian Cashman might do it anyway to be the first team in line. Sure, the Yankees have too much talent to be off to their worst start since 1997.

But though the Yankees will insist their play has been a mirage and that there are more than five months to get themselves situated, they look bewildered. Once Contreras left, the Yankees actually played worse than he pitched. Imagine how unsightly that was to the soggy fans.

Contreras sees his shadow when he opposes Boston and implodes. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were booed after futile at-bats, Bubba Crosby fell twice in center field, and the Yankees did not advance a runner to third base off Derek Lowe for the first six innings. When does the $183 million payroll climb to $200 million because George Steinbrenner wants reinforcements? If this were a typical season where the Yankees had six or seven starters, Contreras would be in the bullpen today.Lowe was almost perfect until Hideki Matsui clubbed a two-run homer in the seventh, but the runs were irrelevant. With Lowe, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and Tim Wakefield, the Red Sox have won the battle of the rotations so far. They are a combined 8-3 with a 4.33 ERA, and, although there have been doubts about Martinez's velocity, he is much more of a certainty than Contreras or Mike Mussina right now.

What should concern the Yankees is how the Red Sox have built a 2 1/2-game lead without shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and right fielder Trot Nixon. If the Yankees had two comparable starters out with injuries, their already lame offense might even be more anemic. If one of those players were Jorge Posada, the Yankees might not have an offense.

The Red Sox made their first trip to the Stadium since Aaron Boone belted Wakefield's knuckleball into the left-field seats to win Game 7 of the American League Championship Series last season.

But the Yankees, not the Red Sox, were the team that seemed spooked to be back playing in the Bronx.

"Why should we be?" Sox catcher Jason Varitek asked. "Because we got beat on one hit? Some things went well. Some things didn't go well. We were one step closer then we've been in a long time. We look forward to the games and winning them."

That is what the Red Sox did last night. They beat Contreras again, beat the Yankees again, and gave the Yankees a little extra to ponder.

Even if it is only April, the Yankees were the team who despised what happened at the Stadium last night.

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