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Jackie MacMullan

You have to give starting pitcher Beckett a save

It's OK. You can come down off the ledge now.

Josh Beckett has salvaged your sports weekend.

The previous 48 hours could only be described as excruciating for New England's sports fans. Their beloved Patriots were undressed as video voyeurs. Their beloved Red Sox were undressed by the New York Yankees' six-run explosion in the eighth inning of a crushing 8-7 loss Friday night.

But Beckett restored order to the Boston athletic universe yesterday afternoon, spinning a three-hit, seven-inning gem that deflated the Yankees, 10-1, and gave him a leg up on his Cy Young rival, Chien-Ming Wang, who took the mound with nearly identical statistics.

When the game started, both pitchers were 18-6 with ERAs below 4.00. Yet it was Beckett who shook off a shaky first inning (a home run to Derek Jeter on a 2-and-2 count) and proceeded to seize momentum of the game and, perhaps, the series.

It was a much needed salve to cool the scorching wounds from Friday night's debacle. Beckett became the major's first 19-game winner, and, aside from serving up that first-inning shot to Jeter into the blacked-out portion of the bleachers, he was dominant. During one stretch from the tail end of the second inning to the fourth, when he struck out the side, he punched out six of the eight batters he faced. The only other hits he allowed were a single to Bobby Abreu in the third and a bloop single to Robinson Cano in the seventh.

"He's really got it together this year," noted Yankees slugger Jason Giambi. "You got to get to him early, force him into a mistake, otherwise, he gets command of the strike zone and starts working both sides of the plate.

"When he first came over, I thought he had a little of that National League mentality. At 3 and 1 he'd say, 'I'm going to challenge you [with my fastball].'

"Now it's changeups and breaking balls."

Beckett is 9-1 following a Sox loss. None of those wins was more significant than this one. Unlike last season, when a poor inning early in the game often caused him to unravel, Beckett exhibited the kind of poise that earns him the moniker as the top pitcher in the American League.

"He pitched like an ace of a staff today," said Boston manager Terry Francona.

It was a lift this Red Sox team sorely needed. In rational terms, Friday night's bleak result was merely one blown opportunity - albeit a particularly egregious one - but really now, when have the Red Sox and the Yankees ever been viewed in rational terms? The loss was magnified by the misadventures of relievers Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon, particularly the latter, who is known in these precincts as about as sure a bet as Tom Menino in the next race for mayor.

Papelbon's profanity-laced rant into his glove after he blew the game summed up the frustrations of all of Red Sox Nation. The collapse really, really stunk (Papelbon used other terms, but we will douse his diatribe with a dash of Clorox for the sake of the family newspaper), and raised questions anew about the local team's ability to eliminate their most bitter rival from the division race equation.

To wit, yesterday's game took on added significance, even with Boston's 4 1/2-game lead in hand (four in the loss column), if for no other reason than it would negate Black Friday and put a stop to the idea the Red Sox suddenly can't beat Joe Torre's boys. It had been, after all, seven of the last eight wins for the Pinstripes, but then, who's counting?

All of us. Let's be clear on this. When Boston loses to New York one time, it feels the same as getting swept in a four-game series by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It means at least three taunting text-messages from your obnoxious college friend in Brooklyn, at least one smug phone call from your dad, who grew up in Queens, and, to be sure, at least six dozen e-mails from Red Sox fans who are convinced this time the sky - including the Prudential, the John Hancock, and the Citgo sign - truly is falling.

"It's kind of humorous," Papelbon said. "The world is coming tumbling down. Obviously, none of the guys in here think like that, but you know it's out there. But that's what makes such a great team. [On Friday], we had a flat. Today, we fixed it, and we're right back where we started."

On a day when the Red Sox needed tidy pitching, Beckett came with heat and control and command. In his last outing against the Yankees Aug. 29, he gave up a career-high 13 hits in a 4-3 loss. It was a bitter disappointment for a pitcher who recognizes the significance of this rivalry.

"He relishes a stage in which it's time to elevate the game and produce," said pitching coach John Farrell. "It speaks to his awareness of what we need from him, of where we are in this pennant race.

"I can't speak about last year, because I wasn't here. But from what I know about him, he has really matured. He has learned to harness his emotions and become consistent. He should be very proud. Today was an opportunity where, after the first inning, he could have gone the other way. He didn't."

In spite of the lopsided score, these two familiar foes did not escape without a bit of their usual histrionics. Wang nailed Kevin Youkilis on the wrist in the fifth, driving him from the game. At the time, it was a 1-1 ballgame and the pitch was clearly accidental, but Beckett, knowing he was coming out, plunked Giambi in the side in the seventh with two outs and nobody on.

"Obviously, Chien didn't hit Youkilis on purpose," Giambi said. "Yeah, that's a great idea, with Papi coming up, like he hasn't hurt us enough."

So did Giambi think Beckett hit him intentionally?

"You'd have to ask him," Giambi said. "I'm not worried about that. Look, I respect it. He's looking out for his guys. We're just a couple of teams playing hard."

Beckett wasn't interested in discussing Giambi or his role in lifting his team back up from the free fall of the previous night.

Nor did he need to. "Black Friday" can be now be filed away alongside Videogate and all the other bad karma that has been dogging this city in recent days.

The Red Sox beat the Yankees. It's only one game, but a game this team sorely needed.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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