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RED SOX 3, YANKEES 2

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Red Sox rally to take opener in the Bronx

NEW YORK -- No romantic comedies on the big screen in the visitors clubhouse at 161st Street last night as the Red Sox prepared to renew their epic struggle for supremacy against the Yankees.

No cult classics or murder mysteries.

Not when they could watch something more fitting. Something like "Troy," the story of the mythological, 10-year war between the Greeks and Trojans, which mesmerized a number of Sox players before the game.

As it turned out, the Sox could have tuned up for their Friday night in the Bronx by pairing "Troy" in a double bill with the aptly titled "Hatful of Rain." And maybe by adding a special feature: "The Wonders of Johnny Damon."

On a night when the remnants of Ivan, the killer hurricane, began to wash over Gotham, Round 1 of the weekend slogfest twice was interrupted by rain, forcing a 96-minute delay, before Damon singled off supercloser Mariano Rivera with two outs in the ninth inning to lift the Sox to an electrifying 3-2 victory before the lingering diehards in a sellout crowd of 55,128 at Yankee Stadium.

"We were facing the best closer in the history of the game," Damon said. "If you can pull off a victory like that, you've done something special."

Damon's game-winner capped a two-run rally that lifted the Sox out of a 2-1 hole in a last-gasp bid to sustain one of the most remarkable stretch drives in franchise history. Trot Nixon ignited the rally by drawing a walk leading off. As Rivera fanned Jason Varitek for the first out, Dave Roberts, running for Nixon, stole second. Rivera than drilled Kevin Millar with a pitch before Orlando Cabrera denied Rivera his 50th save of the season by shooting a single to right to knock in Roberts and force a 2-2 deadlock.

"Somebody taught him to play the game right," Sox manager Terry Francona said of Cabrera. "I wish we could take credit for it. He does a lot of little things on top of the things everybody sees."

With Gabe Kapler, running for Millar, at second with two outs, Damon flared a single to right-center, much like Jorge Posada's crippling hit in Game 7 of last year's American League Championship Series. Keith Foulke then finished off the Yankees in the ninth for his 30th save and 16th straight.

The victory lifted the Sox, who trailed the division-leading Yankees by 10 1/2 games as recently as Aug. 9, within 2 1/2 games in their bid to overtake the Bombers. They also remained 5 1/2 games up in their wild-card race with the Angels, who beat Texas, 9-5.

It marked the second time in as many tries the Sox have come from behind against Rivera (Bill Mueller touched him for a walkoff homer July 24 at Fenway Park).

"This is a big win for us," Millar said. "This is the second game coming back on Mariano, and he's the toughest in the league. To do that shows a lot of character."

Before the rousing finish, the taut thriller first turned on John Olerud's tiebreaking solo homer off Bronson Arroyo leading off the fifth inning. The shot came as a cruel twist for the cornrowed Arroyo, who outlasted Yankees starter Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez in their struggle against the elements. Arroyo submitted an otherwise fine outing, allowing only two runs on four hits and a walk in his rain-bedeviled six-inning outing.

Until the ninth, Hernandez and the Yankee bullpen all but silenced the vaunted Sox offense, which leads the majors in a number of categories, including the one that counts most (runs). The undefeated Hernandez (8-0) surrendered one run on three hits, including a solo shot by Damon, over three innings in his rain-shortened outing before he handed the torch to Tanyon Sturtze.

Sturtze, the righthander from Worcester, Mass., who was a main combatant in the brawl game July 24 at Fenway Park, pitched 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, allowing only a single to one of his nemeses, Nixon, and a pair of walks. His pivotal relief outing unfolded just four days after he surrendered seven runs in two-thirds of an inning in his most recent appearance against the Royals,

The Sox squandered a prime chance in the sixth inning against Sturtze after David Ortiz walked and Nixon singled to start the inning. With no outs and runners on first and second, Sturtze foiled the threat by fanning Varitek and getting Millar to bounce back to the mound into a 1-4-3 double play.

The Sox failed to threaten again until the ninth.

As for Arroyo, he held the Yankees hitless for two innings before the delays, then allowed a run in the fourth before Olerud's shot broke a 1-1 tie in the fifth.

Two pitches after Olerud's blast, Manny Ramirez made the play of the game, leaping above the left-field wall to rob Miguel Cairo of a home run. Cairo was so sure it was a home run that he rounded the bases before he learned to his consternation from plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt of Ramirez's magnificent catch.

Ramirez called the catch the best of his career.

"When you make a catch like that, man, it's better than when you hit a grand slam," Ramirez said. "You get so excited, it's unbelievable."

For Ramirez, who grew up across the Harlem River from the stadium in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, the feat was his latest in an MVP-like season. Asked what his first MVP award would mean to him, he said, "It would mean a lot because I already put up some awesome numbers for like six years. But it's up to you [writers]. I'm going to keep going and doing some damage and having fun."

The stormy night started with a strange twist for Ramirez, who made his 42d home run trot of the season with one out in the first inning, only for third base umpire Tim Timmons to correctly reverse his initial ruling after conferring with his colleagues. Ramirez's shot, which curled just inside the left field foul pole, would have given the Sox a 2-0 lead. Ramirez settled for a walk, moving Mark Bellhorn, who had singled, to second.

Still, the Sox put Hernandez in jeopardy as Ortiz followed Ramirez's walk by singling to load the bases with one out. But El Duque escaped the jam by getting Nixon to bounce into a fielder's choice, with Bellhorn erased at the plate. Then Hernandez caught Varitek swinging at a third strike.

As things turned out, the lost opportunity proved crucial as Damon mustered the only run for the Sox. When El Duque threw him a belt-high, 88-mile-per-hour heater on a 3-1 count in the third inning, Damon cranked it into the second row of the upper deck in right field. The homer was Damon's 17th of the season and extended his streak of reaching base safely to 26 games. He had scored in 22 of the previous 26 games, with the Sox winning all 22 games in which he had scored.

"It's no coincidence that when he's had succcess, so have we," Francona said.

After the rain delays in the third inning, the Yankees broke through in the fourth. Alex Rodriguez, who popped up in the first inning in his first at-bat against Arroyo since the melee July 24, started things by doubling to right-center leading off. He went to third on Gary Sheffield's single up the middle and scored on Posada's ground out to force a 1-1 tie before Olerud's shot in the fifth.

Then came the drama in the ninth. 

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