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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Tavarez happy just to pitch in

NEW YORK -- Everyone who was watching NESN remembers. Sports Illustrated wrote about it. It'll live forever on the Internet.

You remember . . . Manny Ramírez sitting on the bench in Minnesota, enjoying a Sunday off as the Red Sox played the Twins . . . Manny with his arm around his friend/countryman, Julian Tavarez . . . Manny stroking Tavarez's head while Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo giggle like a couple of high school sophomores reading The Onion in study hall.

It was hilarious.

Manny likes Tavarez. He does a lot of hitting in games Tavarez starts for the Red Sox. In the first inning last night, Manny stepped to the plate and drove a stake through the heart of the New York Yankees. Sucked all the air out of the place. Folks in Gotham were just starting to feel good about their once-great team when Ramírez walloped a 2-and-0 Mike Mussina cookie and drove it over the wall in left for a three-run homer.

And just like that, Joe Torre went back on the hot seat, the Yankees' pathetic little winning streak (two games!) was effectively over, and Brian Cashman wondered if Roger Clemens might skip Trenton and come back to New York tonight.

The Book of Earl Weaver holds that good pitching and three-run homers generally result in victory. Tavarez and Manny supplied both in this 7-3 win, which left the Sox again with a whopping 10 1/2-game lead in the American League East.

"Manny came up big today," said Tavarez, who has beaten the Yankees twice this year. "A three-run jack in the first inning. That's a big thing. Before I get to the mound, we're already ahead, 3-0."

Keeping a seat warm in the rotation for Jon Lester, Tavarez has been a serviceable starter this spring, and he was more than that last night. He outpitched Mussina (7 earned runs, swelling his ERA to 6.52). In 5 2/3 innings, Tavarez gave up two runs, surrendering only three hits. Faced with a huge jam in the fifth (bases loaded, one out, Derek Jeter up), he gave up only one run when the Yanks threatened to tie or take the lead.

Boston led, 4-2, when Tavarez came off the hill in favor of Javier Lopez after getting Jorge Posada to ground into a double play following an Alex Rodriguez walk. His teammates mobbed him when he got to the dugout. Nice way to celebrate his 34th birthday.

"I actually didn't feel strong at all," said Tavarez. "I've had a cold for the last seven days. But this is not about me beating the Yankees. This is about our whole team."

Once considered a tad scary because of his numerous jousts with opponents, dugout telephones, and fans, Tavarez has emerged as Mr. Congeniality this year. A friend of everyman. And every reporter. He is one of the few pitchers in baseball who talks to the media before games on the day he pitches. (And let's not forget that, as a Cardinal, he surrendered the big home run to Mark Bellhorn in the first game of the 2004 World Series.)

He said all the right things after beating the Yanks. He credited his catcher, Jason Varitek. He credited Coco Crisp for stealing a base and David Ortiz for driving in a run. And Manny, of course. He even said he won't mind yielding his starting job once Lester is ready.

"Everybody in baseball is holding a job for somebody else," he said. "It doesn't matter if I come out next time and pitch a perfect game. When Jon Lester comes back, the job belongs to him. He's going to be one of the greatest pitchers in baseball and I want him to have a 17-year career.

"This is not about being the No. 5 starter. The thing I want for Jon is for him to be healthy. I can be seven man, eight man. It doesn't matter. I'm happy as long as I have a uniform."

Manager Terry Francona on Tavarez: "I just think he really likes to pitch whenever you give him the ball. He'd probably pitch tomorrow. He just likes to pitch."

Said Jeter, "He's never fun to face. Nothing he throws is straight. There's always so much movement on his ball."

Now that Tavarez, Mussina, Tim Wakefield, and Chien-Ming Wang have had their turns in this series, tonight's mound matchup features Andy Pettitte vs. Curt Schilling -- two guys who learned valuable lessons from Roger Clemens. Pettitte is part of the reason Clemens wanted to come back to the Yankees (a prorated $28 million had a little something to do with it, too). Schilling, meanwhile, has stated that a lecture from the Rocket helped turn his career around.

While Pettitte and Schilling work at Yankee Stadium, Clemens will be pitching in Trenton (Double A). He is on course to return to the majors in Toronto next Tuesday. The perfect scenario would then have Clemens pitching at Fenway against the Sox on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" June 3. This would result in mayhem not seen at a Boston sports venue since July 1972 when the Rolling Stones showed up at the old Garden four hours late after getting arrested at the Warwick, R.I., airport. Boston Mayor Kevin White was credited with preventing a riot and the Stones, naturally, were greeted with wild applause when they finally hit the stage at 12:30 a.m.

The Rocket will not be greeted as kindly. In fact, his reception will make Johnny Damon's return to Fenway look like a parade through the Canyon of Heroes. Imagine Don Imus being introduced at next year's NCAA Women's Final Four.

It's possible, of course, that the planets may not align. Clemens could decide to delay his return. He could also be held back for an extra day of rest and pitch in Chicago the day after the Yankees finish at Fenway. This would inspire additional scorn from Red Sox Nation. Hub fans would accuse the Rocket of dodging Boston. And we'd all wonder why the $28 million man wasn't used for the Big Series.

Then again, pretty soon we may not be thinking of these Red Sox-Yankee series as big events. Not when the Sox own a double-digit lead in the standings.

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

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