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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Must win in likely lost cause

NEW YORK -- The Yankees looked like the team with hunger at The Stadium last night. Fighting for their AL East life, and maybe some jobs, the Yanks beat the Red Sox, 6-2, in Game 1 of a suddenly "crucial" spring series with their blood rivals from Boston.

"It was a big game for us," said beleaguered manager Joe Torre. "A huge game. Two in a row. We haven't done that for a while. It's not something that we usually trumpet, but we haven't done it much."

It may not matter. Atlanta Braves ace John Smoltz says it's over, and a lot of Red Sox fans are thinking the same thing. It's May 22 and the Sox have shredded the competition in the American League East. Only four other teams in major league history have held a 10 1/2-game lead 43 games into the season (the Sox lead is now down to 9 1/2). One of them was the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games.

When the Braves were at Fenway over the weekend, veteran Smoltz took a look at the Sox roster and the AL East standings and said, "I don't think they can be caught."

He's probably right.

Yankee zealots are citing 1978 as a reason to believe. But that's a stretch. The 1978 Red Sox did not have the pitching we're seeing at Fenway this year. And the 2007 Yankees bear little resemblance to the blood-and-thunder rogues who populated the '78 New York roster.

If this really were like 1978, George Steinbrenner would be firing coaches right and left. The Boss would be consulting with his "baseball people" and Brian Cashman would be buying calzones with Costanza. Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra would be summoned for ceremonial first pitches and Frank Sinatra Jr. would be trotted out for a live version of "New York, New York." Dave Winfield might even be brought back. The Yanks could use "Mr. May" right about now.

Many of these Yankees were around when New York vaulted over the Sox last August -- completing the infamous five-game Boston massacre. And we must remember that the Yankees have finished ahead of the Red Sox 11 years in a row. But at this hour the Pinstripes look like a bunch with plenty of doubt and not enough pitching. They went into this series knowing that a Boston sweep would bury them in the eyes of everyone other than John Sterling and the Hendricks Brothers.

"Regardless of who we're playing, we need to play well," said Yankees captain Derek Jeter. "But we can't keep saying, 'It's early, it's early, it's early.' "

How bad has it gotten here in the Bronx? Sunday night's 6-2 victory over the Mets -- the one in which the immortal Tyler Clippard made his major league debut -- was received locally with almost the same enthusiasm that accompanied Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. It was, after all, a win that pulled the Yanks within four games of .500. It also narrowed the Red Sox' lead to 10 1/2 games over New York.

Small victories indeed.

It's quite possible Roger Clemens is the only thing standing between Torre and the unemployment line. Torre's Yankees never have been this far out of first place, and if Steinbrenner hadn't committed a pro-rated $28 million to the Rocket for the remainder of this year, Joe might already be history. Clemens has let it be known he would not appreciate coming to a Yankees clubhouse without Torre in the corner office. So you have the Rocket as Joe's firewall.

That's why it was a big deal when Alex Rodriguez got a great look at a high knuckleball from Tim Wakefield (14 baserunners in five innings) in the first inning last night. It was a pitch similar to the one Wake threw Aaron Boone in October 2003, and A-Rod's eyes were as big as Hideki Matsui's head when he turned on the pitch and drove it more than 400 feet for his 18th homer and a 2-0 lead.

"Alex seems to be back," said Torre. "He's having good swings."

The monstrous clout drew the approval of Chazz Palminteri (genius of "A Bronx Tale," one of the top 10 movies of all time) sitting in the second row behind home plate. Chazz turned to the guy sitting to his right and whispered something like "Now, yous can't leave."

Chazz was on his feet again in the second when controversial designated hitter Jason Giambi put a Wakefield waffle into the third deck in right to make it 3-0.

Three innings later, overdue Robinson Cano tripled home a pair to give the Yankees a 6-1 lead after five. Chien-Ming Wang (two runs in 6 1/3 innings) made the lead look especially large.

Imagine: a quality start for the Yankees. Very rare. In the spring of '07, there've been more Boston Pops brawls than Yankees pitching gems.

"Boston is the cream of the crop right now," said Torre. "We need to do something, and obviously since this was against Boston, you feel much better because they're the club we need to run down."

They have a long way to run. And when you are the New York Yankees, it's hard to get used to playing a "must-win" game . . . in May.

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

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