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BOB RYAN

Yankees are lined up, ready to go

Johnny Damon returns to Fenway Park with a hot bat, reaching base in nine of his last eleven plate appearances.
Johnny Damon returns to Fenway Park with a hot bat, reaching base in nine of his last eleven plate appearances. (AP Photo)

NEW YORK -- ''The Yankees are coming! The Yankees are coming!"

This probably does not come as a news bulletin to most fans, but just in case a few of you have been OD'ing on running backs, wideouts, and linebackers the past month, the time has come for the actual beginning of the local baseball season. Unlike last year, when the foolish schedule-makers had these teams wasting all that energy on Opening Day, the first battle between (pick your side) baseball's Athens and Sparta will take place at Fenway Park tonight.

''It's going to be nuts," says Yankees manager Joe Torre. ''All the attention will be on Johnny Damon. I don't know if there'll be any left over for Mike Myers. But Johnny was a cult figure up there, and for all he did up there for four years, not to mention Game 7 here a couple of years ago, he should be cheered. I know a lot of people resent him because he chose us, but I think the cheers will outweigh the boos."

We shall see about that, but whether people choose to salute him for past services when he is first introduced, or give him the old bazoo for having defected to the Evil Empire, they should be advised that he comes back to Boston in pretty much the same state as when he was last seen in Boston. He has found his way on base in nine of his last 11 plate appearances, and he appears to have found his batting stroke.

Saturday he had two homers to right field (the second an upper-decker), a single, and a walk, scoring a career-high five runs (he also reached on an error) as the Yankees crunched Toronto, 17-6. Yesterday he had a bunt single, a line-drive single to left, and a ground-rule double to left as the Yankees won again, 4-1. He also stole a base and scored his 22d run of the season, which means he is well on his way to scoring in excess of 100 runs for the ninth consecutive year.

''He's using the whole field again," says Torre. ''That's what made him so difficult to pitch to when we played against him. He'll take what you give him, and then every once in a while he's laying in the weeds on you."

''I had it in spring training," Damon said. ''Then I lost it for four or five days. I think it may have had something to do with the days off we had. But I'm where I need to be right now."

The same surely can be said for Jason Giambi, who is setting himself up for a monster season. Giambi hit his ninth homer yesterday, and he arrives at Fenway as the American League leader in runs batted in (27), walks (25), slugging (.852), and on-base percentage (.554), which means, of course, that he also leads in OPS (1.407).

''He's just seeing the ball so well," says Torre. ''And it's great."

The Yankees are an extremely potent offensive team. They are second in the American League in runs, walks, and slugging, all of which was entirely predictable, given their star-laden lineup. They have scored nine runs or more six times, and in the course of Saturday's rout they became the second Yankees team in history to score in every available inning, the last such occurrence taking place in 1939, before even Julio Franco had signed.

Torre has had to adjust his batting order to reflect the temporary loss of cleanup hitter Gary Sheffield, who bruised his left wrist in a first-base collision with Shea Hillenbrand Saturday, and is in ''day-to-day" mode. For the time being, Giambi is batting third and Alex Rodriguez fourth.

But as everyone knows, pitching ultimately will decide who keeps playing in October and who gets to work on his short game, and here the Yankees are still trying to get the formula down. There was no basic problem yesterday, as Mike Mussina worked six pretty good innings before handing the ball to expensive offseason setup acquisition Kyle Farnsworth, who worked a nice 1 2/3 innings. Mariano Rivera, whose numbers suggest the onset of something approaching mortality (3.72, with 10 hits in 9 2/3 innings), worked a clean 1 1/3 innings.

Saturday was another matter, however. Randy Johnson was given nine runs to work with, but he came perilously close to being pulled by Torre an out short of qualifying for his 267th career victory during a shaky fifth. The Big Unit needed 109 pitches to get the requisite 15 outs. At 42-plus, he is extremely inconsistent.

At least he's out there every fifth day, unlike Carl Pavano, who is still on the disabled list. That has not turned out to be a very good signing.

Torre must think there is sufficient time to work out all this pitching business, because he delivered a generally positive assessment of his team's first month.

''I like this team," he says. ''I wish our record [13-10] was better, but day-in and day-out, the consistency of our preparation and determination, all that stuff, is very good. We are pretty businesslike, with enough emotion to show that we know how important this all is. I am very pleased with the personality of the club as it sits right now."

About the only thing most people find wrong with this initial Red Sox-Yankee confrontation is its brevity. Visiting teams hate two-game series, and the Yankees have them back-to-back on this strange trip (two at Tampa/St. Pete and three at Texas before coming home). But Torre, ever the positive thinker, has his own spin. ''Two games," he says. ''A little taste. Maybe that's not so bad. Then we see each other again the following week."

With 10 years of dugout experience, Torre qualifies as one of the great repositories of Yankees-Red Sox rivalry lore. If anyone has it all figured out, it's Joe Torre. For example, when it comes to the Yankees and Red Sox, what took place the day before will have no bearing.

''It doesn't matter when these games come," he explains. ''You could come in having won five straight, or having lost five straight. To me, all these series take on a life of their own. It doesn't matter what happens before, and no matter what happens it will have no bearing on what happens afterward. They are all extremely exciting. I grew up on the Dodgers and Giants, and that was great, but I've never experienced anything like this."

Speaking of experiences, Damon will be having one he'll never forget tonight. He held court for some 50 media people before yesterday's game in a dugout session and was bombarded by more questions after the game. He is scheduled for a grilling this afternoon at Fenway. What more can he say, other than this?

''I expect to be cheered for helping them win a World Series, and I expect to be booed for becoming a Yankee," he said, for maybe the 1,000th time.

Just what this rivalry needed: something else to spice up the plot.

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

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