NEW YORK -- It's the time of year, Joe Torre said, when it doesn't matter whether you're seven games ahead or seven games behind.
"You really have to put the blinders on and deal with the present," said the Yankees manager, whose team found itself last night in the forgotten position of being the pursuers rather than the pursued in the American League East.
"You get reminded, which is normal, about what other people are doing, where your competition is going to come from. Then when you try to simplify it and make sense of it all, it's all about what you do, not what other people are doing."
In a 5-3 win over the Red Sox last night, the Yankees stuck to the business at hand, no one more so than Johnny Damon, who knows something about playing in the moment. Damon was in the middle of it all in 2004 when the Sox faced seemingly hopeless odds against the Bombers and became the first team in history to recover from an 0-3 playoff deficit to win the AL Championship Series.
Damon hit a two-run home run in the seventh off Daisuke Matsuzaka to break a 3-all tie, and later deflected every invitation to send a verbal tweak toward the team that let him go, even after being apprised that Sox owners John W. Henry and Larry Lucchino were in the house, along with general manager Theo Epstein.
"I didn't even know John Henry was here," Damon said after the Yankees trimmed a game off the Sox' lead, which stands at seven with 30 to play.
Damon's home run set the stage for the Sox to get their first up-close-and-personal look at Joba Chamberlain, the rookie phenom who, after dispatching the Sox in the eighth, has not allowed a run in his first eight major league appearances, striking out 17 in 10 innings with a fastball that regularly registers in the high 90s.
Chamberlain did not have to face Manny Ramírez, who hit his 20th home run of the season off Andy Pettitte in the second inning for Boston's first run but was gone when Chamberlain started the eighth, having been removed an inning earlier because of back spasms.
"I'm not a fan of losing him for a couple of weeks," said Sox manager Terry Francona, who had given Ramírez a day off Sunday in Chicago because he'd had some back tightness.
Bobby Kielty played left field in the seventh but was lifted for a pinch-hitter, Eric Hinske, with one on and one out in the eighth because his back also gave out, the result of his collision with the low bullpen wall in his first game with the Sox 10 days ago.
Chamberlain blew a 99-mile-an-hour fastball past Hinske, then put him away with a nasty slider.
"The first pitch he threw was a curve for a strike," Hinske said. "The next pitch was outside but it was called a strike. I'm 0 and 2, and there's nothing you can do.
"He throws 100 and he throws a 90-mile-an-hour slider. Other than that . . . "
Hinske didn't bother finishing the sentence. He didn't have to.
Mike Lowell kept the inning alive by sticking out his bat and blooping a single to center, placing J.D. Drew in the crosshairs. Drew looked at five pitches, including a 100-mile-per-hour fastball that missed outside, before taking a half-swing at a slider, his whiff leaving the tying runs on base.
Mariano Rivera finished the Sox off in the ninth, striking out Jason Varitek and Coco Crisp before breaking Julio Lugo's bat on a soft liner to second to end the game.
"We feel good about ourselves," said Torre, words that would have stuck in his throat the night before in Detroit, when the Yankees were beaten, 16-0, the most one-sided shutout loss on the road in their history. "Obviously, we didn't feel good about the road trip, but we feel good about the way we're playing."
The Sox had come back from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2, Varitek making it 3-3 by homering just over the leaping Damon in left, the ball landing in the first row of the grandstand.
Matsuzaka spotted the Yankees a 2-0 lead in the first, when he gave up a single by Damon and a full-count walk to Bobby Abreu before hitting Alex Rodriguez in the back to load the bases. One run scored when Hideki Matsui's ground ball was hit too slowly for the Sox to turn two, and Jorge Posada doubled down the line in left for the second run.
The Sox answered with Ramírez's home run to start the second, an opposite-field drive. Lugo tripled to left-center to open the third, and after Pettitte retired Dustin Pedroia on a comebacker, Kevin Youkilis worked an 11-pitch walk. David Ortiz followed with a line drive that drove Damon back to the track, Lugo scoring on the sacrifice fly.
The Yankees regained the lead when Derek Jeter homered to right-center with two outs in the fifth. The home run was the ninth of the season for Jeter, but his first in 87 at-bats as he has been bothered by a sore right knee.
Damon's home run, which barely carried beyond the 314-foot sign at the line, followed a single by Andy Phillips and a sacrifice by Melky Cabrera.
Matsuzaka (13-11), who has lost four of his last five decisions, said he eschewed strikeouts for a lower pitch count that would allow him to go deeper into the game. He had thrown only 76 pitches entering the sixth.
"I think all responsibility for our recent losses belong to me," said Matsuzaka, a 2-1 loser in his previous start against Tampa Bay when the Sox left 14 men on base.
The Yankees made a bid to add to their lead in the eighth when Robinson Cano tripled with two out, but Manny Delcarmen struck out Wilson Betemit.
Rivera had given up a total of six runs in two appearances spanning one inning against the Sox in April, prompting the annual speculation that the elegant closer was finally nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career. But after finishing off the Sox for his 23d save, he has now held them scoreless in the last five outings.