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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Opening series almost too much for us to take

NEW YORK -- Three games into the season, some Red Sox fans no doubt are already emotionally spent. The opening series in New York was baseball in a blender and left everyone on both sides a little dizzy.

In addition to the hits, runs, errors, chants, fights in the stands, nonstop hype, and statistical oddities (Mark Bellhorn had five hits and seven strikeouts in 12 at-bats), there were some serious, real-life issues in yesterday afternoon's furious finale.

Sox manager Terry Francona and Yankees captain Derek Jeter were under observation in New York hospitals by the time the Sox walked off the field with a 7-3 win. Francona had been taken out of the stadium in midmorning because of chest pains and was en route to Boston for more tests last night. Jeter went to the hospital after getting hit in the shoulder and left ear flap of the helmet by a 92-mile-per-hour Mike Timlin fastball when the Yankees took a 3-2 lead in the eighth. Jeter underwent a CAT scan, which rendered normal readings.

The Sox rallied for five runs in the ninth (four unearned thanks to an error by none other than Alex Rodriguez) off the once-indomitable Mariano Rivera after losing the first two games of their title defense. Oh, and Rivera was booed when he was pulled by Joe Torre with two outs in the ninth. This would be like Larry Bird getting booed at Boston Garden.

Minutes after the emotional win, Sox bench coach Brad Mills, who filled in for Francona, sighed and said, "I might see if Terry's got a bed next to him."

If nothing else, these first three games improved prospects for some truly magical stuff at Fenway Monday afternoon when the world champions finally come home from the wondrous winter of 2004-05. Going into the home opener, the Sox will hold a 28-27 lead in games played against the Yankees starting with the 2003 season. Wonder if maestro Dr. Charles Steinberg can hire Ringo Starr to present the bling and sing, "It Don't Come Easy."

Red Sox-Yankees has evolved into the very best drama in all of sports and with that comes no shortage of themes, which are often silly or contrived (remember "The Curse of the Bambino"?). However, Boston's newfound mastery of Mr. Rivera has become a clear and present danger to New York's traditional late-game dominance over the Sox. We've gone way past quirk and circumstance. The Sox now own the guy. He's blown four consecutive save opportunities against the Sox. He's blown only 27 since the start of the 2001 season, but 11 have come against the Red Sox.

He might have gotten out of trouble in the ninth yesterday, but A-Rod butchered a potential game-ending, double-play grounder by Manny Ramirez (the man the Sox traded for A-Rod, only to have Gene Orza kill the deal).

To his credit -- and few want to give A-Rod credit for anything anymore -- Rodriguez said, "No bad hop. I screwed it up as bad as you can screw up. Originally, I was going to throw to second, then I screwed up. Then I was going home and I screwed up again."

Bad luck or not, Rivera imploded after the error and had to be yanked by Torre with the bases loaded and the Sox leading, 6-3. Torre later said he could not remember the last time he had to remove Rivera in the middle of an inning. Boos -- perhaps some coming from Red Sox road-trippers -- rained on Rivera's head as he walked to the dugout. Talk about your alternate universe.

"I think it's inexcusable if there were boos from Yankee fans," said Torre. "They wouldn't be chomping at the bit to come to the ballpark if it weren't for him."

Kevin Millar added, "I've seen 'em boo Jeter here and said that was like booing Santa Claus. Well, Mariano might be Santa's helper."

More fodder for the Fenway opener: The Red Sox hit Jason Giambi three times in the series and Jeter twice. No Sox players were hit by Yankee pitchers. Torre shot down the notion that the Yankees might be bothered by the disparity and Curt Schilling said, "Anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that it's not an issue with what happened here."

"I don't like hitting anybody in the head," said Timlin. "It's a scary thing. I went to see if [Jeter] was OK and Joe Torre indicated that he was OK."

Timlin's outing was no better than Rivera's. After hitting Jeter, he gave up a walk, a sacrifice fly, which put the Yankees ahead, 3-2, then another walk. It looked as if it was going to be another frustrating loss for the Red Sox. When Ramirez came to the plate to face Rivera, the Sox were outhitting the Yankees, 13-3, but still trailed.

Then A-Rod booted the ball and the Sox made the walls collapse around Rivera.

"The guys showed a lot of heart picking me up," said Timlin. "That's what we're about."

That's what they were about last year, and yesterday, another wild and wacky day in this century-old rivalry, it looked like more of the same. General Mills is 1-0 and the world champs are on their way to Toronto.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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