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ON BASEBALL

Pickup lightens the load

It was a week ago this morning, when Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had struck a deal with the Florida Marlins in which the Bombers would get lefty Al Leiter in exchange for reliever Mike Stanton, only to have Stanton kill the deal by refusing to waive his no-trade privilege. Later that morning, Cashman would learn that sore-shouldered starter Carl Pavano was at least a couple of weeks from coming back, and that afternoon, he learned he'd lost another starter, Chien-Ming Wang, also with a bad shoulder.

''I'm thinking, things can't get worse than that," said Cashman, who already had yet another starter, Kevin Brown, unavailable with a bad back.

This was the behind-the-scenes story to the Yankees' remarkable visit to Boston this past weekend, one in which they managed to lose by a whopping 16 runs Friday night only to win the other three games of the series, including last night's 5-3 victory behind Leiter, whom a persistent Cashman--and not New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the front page of Sunday's New York Post proclaimed-- finally landed in time to make an emergency start last night.

''The guy couldn't get anybody out in the National League," Cashman said of the 39-year-old Leiter, who had won just three games in 17 starts with the Marlins this season, but held the Sox to three hits and a run in 6 1/3 innings last night. ''And he comes in here against this lineup, this ballpark, and shuts them down.

''That's baseball. There are a lot of strange things. Last year we ran into a player, Tanyon Sturtze, we hadn't even scouted that year, but somebody told me he was throwing well in Triple A. He's been a big plus for us since he got over here, and Al Leiter obviously had a huge impact tonight."

While, in their last two series, the Sox have lost three of four to the two teams just behind them in the AL East, the Orioles last weekend in Baltimore and the Yankees here, the Bombers have won 10 of their last 12 games to draw within a half-game of the first-place Sox. Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez double-teamed Curt Schilling's mystique and aura the first night, and never stopped. Sheffield hit .500 in the four-game set with two home runs, including a two-run shot off Tim Wakefield last night, and four doubles, all of which were hit with a ferocity that seemingly could have knocked down the Great Wall of China, never mind the Green Monster.

A-Rod didn't save any kids straying off a Newbury Street curb from being run over, like he did the last time he was in town, but he flattened most every Sox pitcher who crossed his path, hitting a home run in all three Yankee wins, including an eighth-inning Monster-clearing shot last night that found its resting place on the far side of Lansdowne Street.

''In order to win, you look at the great teams, you've got that bang-bang, one-two punch," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. ''You've got [David] Ortiz and [Manny] Ramirez here, but Sheff and Alex, we started this way in reverse when they first came over here last year. Alex third, Sheff fourth. We tried a lot of different things, but once Alex established himself with us, it was an easy decision to make."

Ortiz and Ramirez were hardly slouches this weekend. Ortiz knocked in eight runs in four games and Ramirez had two doubles and two home runs, though the Bombers, notably catcher Jorge Posada, didn't appreciate the theatrics that accompanied Ramirez's homer in the ninth, when he flung his bat down and threw his arms in the air. Posada took a couple of steps after Ramirez down the first-base line, then strode over to the third-base line with plate umpire Jerry Meals in tow to await Ramirez's arrival at the plate.

Posada said he decided not to say anything to Ramirez, but noted archly afterward that all Ramirez's home run did was draw the Sox to within three runs.

''We try to play the game the right way," said Posada, whose two-run home run off Wakefield opened the scoring in the second. ''That's the only thing I have to say. You're down by three runs, four runs, just play the game the right way. Sometimes you expect it out of him, that much I can say.

''I know him, I know he doesn't mean bad by it, but it doesn't look good, you know."

If anyone had a right to pose last night it was Leiter, a Jersey guy who in the course of his 39 years threw a no-hitter and won a World Series with the Marlins in '97, then showed true grit for the Mets even as he took the loss in the deciding game when the Yankees won the Subway Series in 2000. A complete washout for the Marlins, Leiter looked like he was one step away from following Jerry Remy into the broadcast booth, until the Yankees took a flyer on him and he responded.

''I think coming here, I was kind of feeling it is what it is, let it fly," Leiter said, ''and whatever happens will be what it is."

Leiter was no Tim Redding, a minor-league callup who was pressed into service Friday night, lasted 11 batters, and was shipped out the next day. Leiter has a pedigree.

''The one thing we knew was his heart," Torre said. ''We knew he wasn't going to be rattled or nervous. Al Leiter knows how to win. He's pitched on championship clubs, and he certainly gave us a lift tonight."

Rodriguez suspects that lift will extend beyond one night.

''We needed the energy," he said. ''I know a lot of guys were down on him, but we need the energy he brings. What I love more is he's lefthanded. I think lefthanders are so big in Yankee Stadium, and he loves New York."

With the help of Ramirez's home run off Tom Gordon, the first hit the Yankee setup man had allowed after setting down 28 consecutive batters, the longest such streak in the majors, and a throwing error by rookie second baseman Robinson Cano, the Sox made a run at the Bombers in the ninth. Yankee closer Mariano Rivera got the final three outs, but only after giving up hits to Bill Mueller and Jason Varitek, who surely have won a permanent place in at least one Panamanian's nightmares.

''With all our history, what we've got going on, any one of those guys can beat you," Cashman said, ''and it seems like any one of those guys at any given time has beaten us. You flash back to so many games between these two clubs, it's not just Manny and Ortiz and Damon, it's Varitek and Mueller, too.

''But I like to think they feel the same way about our guys, too."

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