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ON BASEBALL

A muted celebration for surprise clinchers

It's a road Brian Cashman was unwilling to take, perhaps because the Yankees general manager didn't realize until a few minutes before game time yesterday that the Yankees could end the afternoon as champions of the American League East for the eighth straight season.

''I expected to win," he said. ''I didn't expect it to decide anything. It was too sinful to think that way when things were so tight."

But for all the joy and relief and gratitude this October surprise brought, Cashman had little interest in expressing a preference to see the Red Sox go home rather than face the possibility of meeting for a third straight year in the American League Championship Series.

''I want us to go forward and go far and deep and keep it on the positive," said Cashman, leaning on a wall outside the visitors' clubhouse while inside his players sprayed each other with Great Western New York State Champagne Brut in a celebration almost as muted as the one that had taken place on the mound after Mariano Rivera fielded Johnny Damon's tapper and flipped it to first for the final out of yesterday's 8-4 win over the Sox.

The combination of the Yankees' win and Indians' loss ended any chance of the Sox winning the division, but the Sox can still advance as the wild-card team with a win today or a Cleveland loss. If the Indians win at home against the White Sox today and the Red Sox lose, and then the Indians beat the Red Sox in a one-game playoff tomorrow at Fenway Park, then Cleveland advances. And the defending world champions, the team that delivered the most humbling blow in pinstriped annals by coming back from 0-3 in the 2004 AL Championship Series, would be an enormous obstacle removed from the Yankees' path.

''I can't think about that," Cashman said. ''If I start thinking about somebody else's situation like that, then the baseball gods will come raining down on top of me and I don't want that."

Those gods, of course, are incapable of wreaking any more havoc than George Steinbrenner had the Yankees failed to make it to the playoffs. But winning gave Cashman the luxury of answering his BlackBerry at his leisure, whether or not the Boss was calling.

''I've got messages," he said. ''I don't know who's called. If he calls, I'd say, 'Congratulations, but we've got more work to be done.' This is important, but it's the first goal, not the ultimate goal."

Gary Sheffield, whose two-run home run in the first inning helped stake the Yankees to a 3-0 lead, and who made seven catches in right field, several that required him to launch into a slide despite a thigh injury, said Yankee captain Derek Jeter told the players before the game what was at stake. In fact, home field in the division series is still at stake because the Angels defeated the Rangers, 7-6, last night.

''Jeter tried to come in and explain it," Sheffield said. ''I didn't want to hear it. I just said, 'Let's win today.' "

''I was getting mad," Jeter said with a smile. ''I had to fill some guys in on how we were able to clinch. I don't think too many people knew about it."

He'd done the math, he said, the night before, after the Yanks had fallen to David Wells and the Sox and Cleveland lost in 13 innings to the White Sox. ''I did it all by myself."

Only three Saturdays ago, the Yankees trailed the Sox by 4 games in the AL East after Curt Schilling pitched his best game of the season in a 9-2 Sox win in which Manny Ramirez and John Olerud hit home runs. But the next day, Randy Johnson outdueled Tim Wakefield, 1-0, on Jason Giambi's foul-pole-hugging home run, Wakefield a loser despite giving up just two hits. That was the first win in a stretch in which the Yanks won 16 of 20, including yesterday's Wakefield-Johnson rematch in which the knuckleballer trailed by three runs four batters into the game.

''This is one step," Sheffield said. ''The way the season started out, we didn't think we were going to get to this point. Mr. Torre had a meeting and challenged us offensively. I [accepted] that challenge and said, 'We've got to step up our game and pick up the pitchers.' We had to play playoff baseball all of September. We had the attitude that we couldn't lose one game. We had some tough losses, but we erased them real quick."

When the Red Sox received their World Series rings at their April home opener, with the Yankees watching from the top of the dugout steps, the magnificent Rivera had been serenaded with a mock cheer in the Fens, a reminder that the Sox had solved him twice during their historic comeback in the ALCS. Yesterday afternoon, there were no cheers, just a sullen and respectful silence when Rivera registered the final out.

''It definitely felt good," Rivera said of the clinching, ''but if you're asking me about last year, last year was last year. That was 2004. This is 2005. We came here, played strong, and won. Last year is over. They won last year. We have to do it this year."

The Yankees were nine games under .500 in May. They went through 14 starting pitchers, including two godsends, Aaron Small (10-0) and Shawn Chacon (7-3), who helped make up for the loss of high-priced breakdowns like Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Kevin Brown. ''You've got to give Brian Cashman a lot of credit," Sheffield said, ''for bringing in Chacon and giving Small an opportunity."

One by one, the Yankees said this season was their toughest challenge.

''We had to deal with a lot of stuff," said Mike Mussina, who was scheduled to pitch today until the Yankees clinched and now will pitch Tuesday's playoff opener against either the Angels or White Sox. ''You play in New York, there's always stuff.

''Baseball-wise, this was a tough year for us. We were really down in the beginning, we didn't play well, we had injuries. Everybody, it seemed, missed time. We sent more than a dozen starters out there this year. But somehow we found a way to battle, scratch, and win games maybe we shouldn't have."

Does Rivera hope to avoid seeing the Red Sox again this year?

''If they go home, they go home," Rivera said. ''They control their own destiny. Whatever happens is OK with me."

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