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BOB RYAN

They're holding all the aces now

NEW YORK -- Mariano Rivera picked up the save, the 32d of his illustrious postseason career. But you already knew that. You knew that back in March.

The real story of the evening was Jon Lieber, and the larger story of the first two games of the 2004 American League Championship Series is the overall starting pitching that Mike Mussina and Lieber have given the Yankees. The Red Sox were supposed to have the edge in starting pitching. But Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez have been outpitched by Mussina and Lieber. Over and out.

"It's definitely the way you want to start out," said John Olerud, whose two-run sixth-inning homer off Pedro Martinez turned out to be the winning margin in the Yankees' 3-1 victory last night. "To get the first two games and take the pressure off you. What a way to start it."

Always the master of the understatement, Mr. O has nailed it again. The Yankees are up, 2-0, and have disposed of the vaunted Red Sox 1-2 punch of Schilling and Martinez. That's a rather dramatic way to start a series against your most hated rival.

"These two games are huge, especially tonight," said Joe Torre. "Curt didn't have his best stuff, but Pedro was Pedro. To beat him on a night like this gives us a lot of confidence."

I'm not sure the Yankees ever need any confidence boosts, but they do have to feel very good about the way their starters have dominated these two games. In the combined first 12 innings of these two contests, Mussina and Lieber have limited the Red Sox to one hit and no runs. That covers an astonishing 40 batters.

In both cases, the Yankee starter brought his A game, at least through the first six. Mussina has a half-dozen pitches, and when he can get them all over he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Lieber, who once won 20 games with the Cubs, is a savvy veteran who understands all the basics of pitching.

The formula is very simple.

"We're not walking a lot of people," said Mussina. "We're not getting ourselves in trouble."

Mussina took note that two of the three Yankee run scorers in last night's game had reached base via a base on balls.

"That's something you don't want to do," said the righthander. "You want to make them earn it. We are able to get ahead of them by throwing strikes and making them hit our pitches."

For the record, Mussina walked no one in his 6 2/3 innings of work, while Lieber walked just one man in his 7-plus innings last night.

"There's no secret what I'm trying to do," said Lieber. "I'm trying to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters. I'm trying to move the ball around, hit my spots and make them get themselves out."

There's no exaggerating how good Lieber was last night. He took a two-hit shutout into the eighth, departing after Trot Nixon's leadoff single. In Ye Olden Days there would have been not the slightest chance he'd be coming out at that point. The man had thrown a mere 82 pitches, 57 for strikes. But in the 21st century every skipper manages by the set-up/closer method, so Torre felt obliged to summon Tom Gordon, who messed up Lieber's line by allowing a Jason Varitek double and a ground-out RBI by Orlando Cabrera.

Rivera was then brought in for a four-out save.

Lieber thus won what the Yankees like to refer to as the "Andy Pettitte Game" of the series; that is, Game 2. He pitched well in the Andy Game of the Minnesota series (a Yankees' win), and it is safe to say that he has earned the confidence of his teammates and the man who can write his name onto the lineup card.

"I tell you," said Torre. "It just seemed that once he settled in, he was just locked in, and he's not going to walk people. He's going to throw a lot of strikes."

All you heard and read in this town before the playoffs began was pitching, pitching, pitching. The doom and gloom after Johan Santana beat them in Game 1 of the Division Series was all-pervasive. It was almost universally assumed Lieber would not win a playoff game. And now the Yankees have won both his starts, including one in which he outpitched Pedro Martinez, who had very good stuff last night, but who was, once again, taxed by the clever approach of the Yankee batters, who made him throw 113 pitches in six innings (see Lieber's total).

What really impressed Torre was that Lieber had pitched against the Red Sox in that last series in New York and had likewise done well.

"To do that [i.e. pitch this well against them so soon after the first game], you know, after they had witnessed you a little bit and had a chance to hit against you, that makes it doubly impressive," Torre declared.

Mussina is wryly amused by all this new fuss about the Yankee pitching.

"We've been hearing that since spring training," he said with a laugh. "Everybody said we had a great lineup and no pitching. We won a hundred games with no pitching."

It was 101, actually. And now it's 106.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com. 

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Monday RHE
Red Sox 5 13 1
Yankees 4 12 1
WP: Wakefield LP: Loaiza
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Game 6: Tue., 8:19 p.m.
TV: Fox, Ch. 25 Radio: 850-AM
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BOS: Schilling NYY: Lieber
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