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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

This place was alive, and so are the Yankees for now

NEW YORK -- When it was over, a freshly minted ESPN Classic, they toasted one another and said goodbye. See you again Sept. 30. That's when the Yankees come to Boston for the final three games of the season.

They have now met 68 times since the start of 2003 and the line score reads, Red Sox 34, Yankees 34, with each team winning one American League pennant.

This year there's a strong chance one of them will be home in October. The Yankees are in danger of being the $200 million bust, and that's why yesterday's 1-0 New York victory was celebrated as a virtual playoff win for the Bronx Bombers.

''No question, this is our postseason," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. ''These games are enormously important. This was as good as it gets."

There was urgency all over the House That Ruth Built. Randy Johnson brought his 'A' game, throwing 97 miles an hour and giving up only one bloop hit in seven innings. The much-maligned Jason Giambi provided the only run in the first inning when he lofted a Tim Wakefield curveball into the right-field seats, just inside the foul pole. And the greatest postseason closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, came out of the bullpen to get four outs, but needed a whopping 36 pitches to keep a doughnut on the board against the most fearsome lineup in baseball.

And all the while owner George Steinbrenner was muttering as he paced nervously in the loge level.

The Yankees simply had to have this game. They'd spit the bit in a brutal loss to Curt Schilling and the Sox Saturday and another defeat against Boston would have put them five games out with only 20 to play in the American League East. Worse for the Steinbrenners, they faced the prospect of falling 2 1/2 games behind the surging Cleveland Indians in the hunt for the AL wild card.

The Yankees haven't missed the playoffs since 1993.

And so they turned their desperate eyes upward and gave the ball to the 6-foot-10-inch lefty who has been maddeningly mediocre for much of his first season in New York.

The Big Unit did not let them down. He dominated. He struck out eight in winning the 260th game of his career. Sox hitters had no chance. NESN commentator Dennis Eckersley no doubt said that some of those pitches had hair on 'em.

''He got himself psyched for those guys and we didn't give him much margin for error," said Torre.

''He was pumped up," said Rivera. ''He was a different pitcher today."

''My stuff's there," said the Big Unit. ''It's been there all year, it's just been in hibernation. I've been scratching my head. It took me a while to find my mechanics, but that's the pitcher everybody expected and that's the pitcher I expected."

Captain Derek Jeter tried to downplay the significance of one game, and reminded everyone that the Yanks resume their season tomorrow in Tampa. Yankee Nation has learned to fear the Devil Rays in 2005. Lou Piniella's bottom-feeders are 11-5 against the Torre-men and it's got Big Old George tied up in knots. He's being threatened by his old hometown (Cleveland) while the terrible team from his permanent home (Tampa) puts a dent in his annual playoff plan. Oh, and he's got to watch his team finish the season in Boston, where the Red Sox almost never lose, knowing that the Sox may be the ones to complete the expensive embarrassment of 2005.

All of the above further explains why the 1-0 masterpiece was so important.

''It was a classic and a throwback to the old days," said Torre. ''When you are running out of games, it's certainly hugely important. We still control things with those last three games against those guys. This was like a heavyweight battle that lived up to its advance notice."

An odd battle of contrasts. Fire and ice.

Johnson got the hitters with heat while Wakefield (a career-high 12 strikeouts) was killing them softly with snowflakes -- no two were alike.

When Torre was able to trust his bullpen enough to remove a man who was pitching a one-hitter, Sox manager Terry Francona went to the bench and found unthinkable firepower in the persons of David Ortiz, Trot Nixon, and John Olerud.

Oh, and American League All-Star catcher Jason Varitek was on deck to pinch hit when Rivera blew Olerud away with his 36th and final pitch.

They always play ''New York, New York" over the loudspeakers at the end of games here. You get the Frank Sinatra version when they win and Liza Minelli's version when the Yankees lose.

This was a day for Frank. Old blue eyes was back and -- for at least one more day -- so were the New York Yankees.

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

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