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It may come down to closing time

NEW YORK -- This is the way it ended last year: An exhausted and emotionally spent Mariano Rivera dropped to his knees after pitching the hardest three innings of his life, sobbing and praying and finally falling prone on the hill, wrapping his arms around the mound in a mixture of thanksgiving and relief. For three innings -- the most he had pitched in a game in more than seven years -- the Yankees' closer had held the Red Sox scoreless, knowing after he struck out Doug Mirabelli to end the 11th he had nothing left to give. Salvation would have to come from somewhere else, and it did, in the bottom of the inning, Aaron Boone sending Tim Wakefield's first pitch, and with it the Red Sox, deep into the night.

Boone became the stuff of legend. Rivera, adding to his own legend as perhaps the Yankees' greatest Mr. October, was named Most Valuable Player of the ALCS, having beaten the Sox once and saving two other wins.

This is how it begins tonight: The Yankees are uncertain whether a grieving Rivera, who flew home to Panama after the deaths of his wife's cousin and the man's son, both apparently electrocuted while cleaning the swimming pool of Rivera's mansion, would be available to pitch in Game 1 of the 2004 ALCS. The expectation, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, is that he will return in time, on a private plane furnished by the club. No one could speak to where Rivera's heart might be engaged, and whether he would want the ball.

Two years ago during spring training, Mike Timlin's mother died, just weeks after his grandmother died. That summer, Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile, a friend and former teammate, and Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck died, and that November, Timlin lost his grandfather, too.

"Dealing with the death of my mom was probably the toughest thing," Timlin said.

"But this," he said, his eyes scanning the clubhouse yesterday, "is a refuge for a lot of problems we have off the field. You come out here, you play baseball, you get involved with the game. The other guys aren't full of sorrow. They feel bad for you, but you pick up on their happiness, their joy about being here."

Timlin would never dare speak to how Rivera will choose to handle the situation, beyond this: "Mariano is a very strong Christian. I know his background, about his ministry." (Rivera has said he would like to become a preacher in Panama after he finishes playing.) "I think God will work through him to show his family strength and peace."

There is a preternatural calm about Rivera when he is on the mound, a quality, Timlin believes, that has much to do with his extraordinary run as Yankee closer: He comes into this series with a 0.71 career ERA in 65 postseason appearances. When he blew a save against the Twins in Game 2 of the Division Series, it was only his third blown save in 33 career postseason opportunities.

But whether his heart will be with the team or with his family -- and the Yankees say they will not force him to make that choice -- remains to be seen.

"He's as good as anybody that I've seen that's been able to shut things out," said manager Joe Torre, "but this thing happened so sudden and so recent I don't think there are any guarantees."

While the Yankees share their teammate's sorrow, the Red Sox come into this series with the man they hope will be their answer to Rivera's dominance: Keith Foulke, who for the first time in his career finds himself in an ALCS. His previous playoff experience, with the A's and White Sox, were on teams that were bounced in the first round.

It is stating the obvious that October so often ends up in the hands of the closer. Last week, when the Sox finished their three-game sweep of the Angels, Foulke extricated himself from a bases-loaded jam in the ninth, striking out Garret Anderson and Troy Glaus to give David Ortiz the chance two innings later to offer deliverance.

Sox manager Terry Francona, who was with Foulke in Oakland as A's bench coach, has little doubt about Foulke's suitability for the postseason pressure.

"He has the ability to attempt to make his pitches regardless of what stadium we're in," Francona said. "When he doesn't make pitches, it's not because he's rattled. He just sometimes throws the ball over the middle of the plate, like everybody else. But I thought last week against Anaheim, you couldn't get in a much tighter spot, and he pitched his way right out of it. He made great pitches."

Rivera, with his 96-mile-an-hour cut fastball, breaks bats and hearts in equal measure. Foulke, with a carefully aimed fastball of lesser velocity and a fiendish changeup, achieves similar results, without killing as many trees. Yesterday, in a clubhouse in which most of his teammates were circled by media, Foulke begged off when one reporter approached. "Try me around the first of November," he said. "I'm just not in a very good mood."

It is his demeanor on the mound that means the most to the Sox, and could make the difference in the series. For all of Rivera's greatness, against the Sox he has blown five saves since the start of the 2002 season.

"If they run Rivera out there enough, he's going to get saves, so the idea is not to have games where they're ahead," Francona said. "But it's nice to know if anybody has had some success, we've showed we can dent that aura or whatever. The game's not over. I don't think we think the game is over, and I don't think they do, either."

Whether the game will be over when Foulke is on the hill with a lead remains to be seen. The Yankees had a major league-record 61 comeback wins this season. Foulke had 32 saves, but he also blew seven opportunities, although the Sox came back to win five of those games. This much is certain: His manager, pitching coach, and teammates have his back, even if he isn't cut from the Rivera/Eric Gagne/Jason Isringhausen power mode.

"He strives for perfection," Timlin said, "like the rest of us. He's just a competitor. He's not overpowering, but he doesn't let that bother him. He gives what he has to overpower you."

Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace likens him to John Franco, the longtime Mets closer.

"Johnny had that great changeup, spotted his fastball, and had big guts," Wallace said. "All those things Foulkie is. He's efficient. He commands the strike zone with his fastball and he has a little bit of a funky delivery and deception. It's just a real good changeup. It has fastball rotation on it; the good ones just leave the hitting area."

Last month, Foulke gave up home runs in three consecutive appearances for the first time in his career. "But the way he came back, the resiliency he showed, that's why he is what he is," Wallace said. "He's really resilient. He never wants out, no matter what the situation is, or what the score is. That's the kind of guy he is." 

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Red Sox 1 5 0
Yankees 3 7 0
WP: Lieber LP: Martinez
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Game 3: Sat., 8:19 p.m.
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