No lead was safe, starting with the 8--0 advantage that New York took over Boston in Game 1 while starter Mike Mussina was throwing a perfect game one out into the seventh inning. In a New York minute--well, before the Yankees could get five more outs, anyway--the Sox had the tying run at third base and Kevin Millar at the plate. That's when Torre summoned the heartsick Rivera, who had spent most of the plane ride from Panama that day in deep prayer. "Give me the strength to go through it," Rivera prayed, "and watch over me and keep me safe."
Rivera is a deeply religious man who traces his piety to 1994, when his wife was hospitalized to have her gall bladder removed, leaving Rivera alone with the couple's then six-month-old baby, also named Mariano. Rivera says that many friends provided care for the baby while he attended to Clara. "Out of nowhere I have more people than my whole family," Rivera says. "That was provided by the Lord."
Rivera arrived at Yankee Stadium in the second inning of Game 1--he found his locker surrounded by floral arrangements sent by sympathetic fans--and joined his bullpen mates in the fifth. Three innings later, with his fourth pitch, he retired Millar on a pop-up. New York tacked on a pair of insurance runs to win 10--7.
Rivera answered a similar alarm the next night in the eighth inning; he preserved Jon Lieber's 3--1 win by striking out Johnny Damon with a runner on third, then set down Boston in the ninth. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said of Rivera afterward, "It's Jordanesque, what he's doing. He's one of the most impressive people I've known in or out of baseball. When I think about what he's done over the past 48 hours, it puts him on an even higher pedestal. And I didn't think that was possible."
rivera's heroics came amid the usual disdain and wariness that mark any meeting of the Yankees and the Red Sox. Boston manager Terry Francona, for instance, argued one inning into the series that New York was violating major league rules by getting hand signals from a radar-gun-toting employee in the stands indicating the speed of the pitches of Red Sox starter Curt Schilling, who left the game after three innings with a balky right ankle. (Baseball vice president Sandy Alderson, seated next to the man in question, denied that such activity had taken place.) Meanwhile, a Yankees official noticed on a television monitor that Boston relief pitcher Curt Leskanic was illegally wiping pine tar on his hands just before entering the game. "We'll just keep it in our pocket for now," the official said.
Devoid of such subterfuge, last Saturday's Game 3 at Fenway was nothing but blunt proof of the Yankees' might. The last thing the Red Sox saw before they left their clubhouse that evening was a handwritten message on the whiteboard attached to the door: we can make history! believe it! They did, all right: They allowed more total bases (44) than any other team in postseason history. "They just basically annihilated us," Varitek said of the 19--8 drubbing.
New York set a franchise record this season with 242 home runs, two more than its fabled '61 team. These Yankees, however, became an especially potent offensive team when Torre moved Rodriguez from third to second in the lineup, behind leadoff hitter Derek Jeter. Through Monday the Yankees had averaged 6.6 runs per game with A-Rod hitting second, up from 5.4 when he wasn't.
Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams (the 2-3-4-5 hitters) combined for 16 hits and 15 RBIs in Game 3. Matsui tied postseason records with five hits and five runs, and by the sixth inning of Game 4 would have the record for extra-base hits (eight) to himself. Until Matsui whiffed in the ninth inning, the Red Sox had thrown 66 pitches to him in the series, and he had swung at and missed only one. "No matter where it's pitched, he's putting a good swing on it," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said before Game 4. "We've got to find a way to get him out. Their 2-3-4 hitters are having unbelievable at bats."
The Red Sox did shut down the Yankees' 2-3-4-5 hitters in Game 4: They were 4 for 21, including nine hitless at bats against the Boston bullpen after New York had taken a 4--3 lead into the seventh.
The Yankees were three outs from the World Series when Rivera walked Millar, the leadoff man in the ninth. Pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second base, then scored on a single by Bill Mueller after Mueller had shown bunt on the first two pitches. "I definitely thought he was bunting [on the third pitch]," Rivera said. "But I walked the first guy. That was the key."