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Leading with conviction

For NY, it’s another peak performance

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 8, 2009

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NEW YORK - History will place last night’s 2-0 Yankee win in 15 innings in the “classic’’ category, but as far as the present is concerned, New York proved last night it is the best team in the American League East. Maybe in all of baseball.

What the Yankees did was demoralize the Red Sox. You can’t have that type of pitching - a scoreless duel for 14-plus innings - and lose like the Red Sox did and come out of it unfazed.

The Yankees were able to match their No. 2 starter, A.J. Burnett, pitch-for-pitch against Boston’s No. 1, Josh Beckett. With the way the Sox’ starting rotation has fared lately, when you lose a game with your ace on the mound, it hurts that much more. The Yankees were able to take advantage of a mismatch at the end with Junichi Tazawa, making his major league debut, against Alex Rodriguez, who won the game with a two-run walkoff homer.

“This would be a hard game to lose,’’ said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. “It was an important game. A good game to win. I think it was important for A.J. to match zeros with their guy. Both guys pitched great.’’

This was a game of superlatives. You can’t denounce the Red Sox’ effort and the job Beckett and Boston’s bullpen did. Nor can you blame young Tazawa for anything. In fact, it was an extremely unfair position to put him in. Why he was called up in the middle of this series will draw some criticism.

Although the Red Sox probably had no intention of using him, they did. Yankee hitters had very little information to go by, other than scouting reports. Certainly nobody had seen him pitch, but, Rodriguez said, in the 14th inning, “We were able to watch him. We saw about 20 pitches or so and I think that helped us when we got to the 15th. We were able to see what he threw. He certainly showed some poise in getting out of the jam in the 14th where we got a couple of hits against him, but he was able to bear down and get out of it.’’

Rodriguez had gone 72 at-bats between homers. But he took Tazawa deep to left-center for his 20th of the year, 11 of which have either tied the game or given the Yankees the lead. His 573d homer tied him with Harmon Killebrew for ninth all time. Nineteen of his career homers have come in the ninth inning or later. This one came much, much later.

“I was just looking to drive the ball to right-center because I knew Derek [Jeter] would be able to score [from first]. I just got a good pitch to hit and I think we were all happy the ball went over the fence so we could go home and get some sleep.’’

The Yankees were probably going to sleep well anyway, while the Red Sox continue to lose sleep as they dropped to 4 1/2 games behind the Yankees and saw their wild-card lead cut to one game over Texas while remaining 2 1/2 games over Tampa Bay.

The Yankees won for the 16th time in 21 games and 29th time in 39 contests. They take the field this afternoon with CC Sabathia, their ace, going against embattled Sox youngster Clay Buchholz. Last night also provided their 10th walkoff win of the season. It was all good, including the timing of A-Rod’s blast.

“It came at the right time,’’ said Girardi. “We were running out of pitchers.’’

Both dugouts were hanging on every pitch all night long. You could see the Yankees’ body language when their near hits went foul. There was applause and words of encouragement from their bench. Both starting pitchers - who were best friends while with the Marlins - stayed on their respective benches the entire game, cheering on their teammates.

“Nobody left,’’ said Girardi. “That goes to show you how important this game was. The starting pitchers actually worked yesterday, but they were still on the bench. That tells you something.’’

These teams are headed in opposite directions at this important juncture of the season. The Red Sox are a mess. The Yankees are all together. The Yankees have few issues, other than who their fifth starter might be in the long run. Their bullpen has come together very nicely with Phil Hughes setting up Mariano Rivera. Alfredo Aceves and Brian Bruney tossed five scoreless innings last night, from the 10th through the 14th, and the Yankee bullpen worked 7 1/3 scoreless innings overall, allowing just three hits and two walks and striking out eight.

Their batters couldn’t do a thing for 14 innings, but when they had to win the game, they did, and a star player who continues to shed the reputation for not hitting in the clutch made it possible to celebrate.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game with more swings and misses,’’ said Rodriguez. “It was a great game. Great pitching performances by both sides. That’s A.J.’s best game. He threw the ball extremely well. There were some great plays, like J.D. [Drew] robbing us a couple of times in right field.’’

Burnett allowed a single to Jacoby Ellsbury to lead off the game, then didn’t allow a hit to the final 27 batters he faced, though he walked six. He is now 5-1 with a 3.39 ERA in 11 career starts against the Red Sox. Since his loss to the Red Sox June 9, he’s gone 6-2 with a 2.32 ERA. Among 461 all-time major league pitchers with at least 25 career decisions against AL East competition, Burnett ranks first with a .756 winning percentage (31-10).

As we have seen lately with the Red Sox, who once had more pitching depth than any team in baseball, things can change rapidly. There’s still time for the Red Sox to get it together and time for the Yankees to fall.

But right now, there’s one excellent team in major league baseball. And they are called the New York Yankees.

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