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Closer makes short work in nick of time

NEW YORK -- We try not to make assumptions, but can we all agree that Mariano Rivera's commute to work yesterday was a little bit easier and decidedly less stressful than the one the day before?

It was a shorter, less painful trip from his suburban New York digs to the Bronx for the ace Yankees' reliever. But he left Yankee Stadium last night having once again blown out the Red Sox in the ninth, picking up another save in New York's 3-1 victory. That's 2 for 2 if you're scoring at home.

Rivera's day Tuesday consisted of a morning funeral in Panama for two relatives, a 4-5-hour trip (with no family members) by private plane to New Jersey, a police escort to Yankee Stadium, an arrival during the second inning and a save in the Yankees' 10-7 win. Last night it was back to the regular routine, but with the same, numbing result. He struck out Johnny Damon to end a threat in the eighth and, in the ninth, he vaporized David Ortiz and Kevin Millar to end the game.

Unfortunately for the Red Sox, baseball is Rivera's escape these days from the sad events that took place over the weekend in Panama, where two of his relatives died. "The only place I don't think about it is when I'm on the mound," he said after his 23-pitch stint last night. "It may be a little easier [yesterday] but the facts are still there. I try to focus on the game. Other than that, it's tough."

The two relatives, a father and his 14-year-old son, were electrocuted in Rivera's pool at his home. The deceased were related to Rivera's wife, Clara. But they also were close to the Yankee closer, which explained his no-doubt-about-it decision to fly to Panama on the eve of Game 1 for the funeral and then return to save Games 1 and 2.

"He seemed to be happy to be back," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "He seemed comfortable with his ability to pitch and with everything that's gone on. I don't think this is going to go away, the stress that he's under, because it happened so quickly and so suddenly. The people were young, and you sort of have flashbacks when things like that happen."

Rivera said he doesn't plan to make any return trips to Panama for the remainder of this series. But, depending on how things go, the Yankees could have a break before the World Series (if they beat the Red Sox) or they could have a lot of time off if the Red Sox rally to win the series.

"I'd love to go back, but it's too far to travel and there isn't enough time," he said. "I know this is home. My family [fellow players] are here. Joe."

He said he was not tired, even though he has entered both games in the eighth inning.

"There's no time for rest," he said. "There's enough time to rest after the season."

The Yankees said they weren't sure if they could -- or would -- use Rivera in Game 1. There was no such hesitation or concern last night. Jon Lieber gave them seven-plus terrific innings. Tom Gordon almost got through the eighth. But, with two outs and a runner on third, Torre made his move.

There aren't many more ominous or menacing sounds in Yankee Stadium than the first twangs of Metallica's "Enter Sandman," which is the song that is played when Rivera gets the call. Yankee fans start celebrating as the first notes make their way through the sound system.

On Tuesday night, Rivera got the final out in the eighth (with the tying run at third) and then got a game-ending double play ball from Bill Mueller, who representing the tying run. Last night, he got Damon looking with Jason Varitek on third base in the eighth. In the ninth, he was, well, Mariano The Magnificent.

He got Mark Bellhorn to ground to first. Manny Ramirez made things interesting when he then roped a double to left-center. That meant that both Ortiz and Millar represented the tying run. Ortiz in particular has had success against Rivera, having gone 7 for 13 against the Yankee closer when he stepped into the box last night.

Rivera sent him back to the dugout with a look of bewilderment on his face.

"I just went inside to him," Rivera said of the strikeout. "I made good pitches. He went for them."

Millar went down swinging as well. It was Rivera's 32d post-season save, a major league record.

The Red Sox may like to think they can nick Rivera, pointing to the comeback wins in Boston July 24 and in Yankee Stadium Sept. 17 this season. But when it matters the most, Rivera has been called to save a playoff game against the Red Sox on six occasions. He has converted them all. 

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