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He rode into the American League Championship Series, which had begun without him an hour earlier, in the back of a blue Cadillac with police cruisers providing an escort. � "Want me to put the game on?" the driver asked. � "No," Mariano Rivera replied. � The New York Yankees' closer stared out the window, and though it was New Jersey on the other side of the smoked glass, he still saw Panama and the two cherrywood coffins that had been lowered into the ground of his homeland just hours before. On Oct. 9 a 14year-old boy, Victor Avila Jr., had been electrocuted in the pool at Rivera's house in Puerto Caimito, and when the boy's father dived in to try to rescue his son, he, too, had perished. They were cousins of Rivera's wife, Clara. Three days later Rivera wept for the father and the son at a funeral mass in a church the pitcher had built. He attended their burial and then flew five hours, alone with his prayers, on a private G-4 jet to New Jersey as the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox renewed their little rivalry with a spot in the World Series at stake. � "You sure?" the driver asked. � "Oh, O.K. Go ahead," Rivera said, and he listened to the ball game silently on the 15-minute drive to Yankee Stadium. � So began a harsh week of October baseball that would test Rivera's stamina and his faith. The Yankees may have assembled a modern-day Murderers' Row of a lineup, and the baseball postseason may look strikingly like home run derby this year, but the ALCS proved that the fulcrum of the Yankees' October is the same as it has been for eight years. It is their closer, Rivera.
In the first five games against Boston, New York manager Joe Torre summoned Rivera four times in the eighth inning to lock down leads. Rivera succeeded twice within the 48 hours after burying the Avilas, giving him a win or a save in 40 of the Yankees' 60 postseason victories since he became their finisher in 1997. But on the third and fourth tries, once with the Yankees three outs from the World Series and then six outs from advancing, Rivera let the leads slip away.
A sweep? Yeah, right. Yankees-- Red Sox is never neat and clean. The rivalry is guaranteed magma, smoldering and always on the verge of eruption, whether the great Rivera is on hand or not. New York had been 53--3 under Torre when it had a lead with six or fewer outs to go in the postseason until Boston stole Games 4 and 5. Each of those games ended with a swing of the bat from DH David Ortiz. After the Red Sox tied Game 4 against Rivera in the ninth, Ortiz won it with a two-run, 12th-inning homer off Paul Quantrill at the ridiculously late hour of 1:22 a.m. EDT on Monday. "It's all right," a weary Rivera remarked after the 6--4 defeat. "Hey, it's one game. We've got another one tomorrow.... Actually, today."
And then Ortiz did it again in Game 5, the ultimate Boston marathon, this time with a walk-off single to bring home Johnny Damon from second in the 14th inning for a 5--4 win. Never before in franchise history had the Yankees lost consecutive extra-inning postseason games, and in each case their touchstone of a closer left wounded.
For three consecutive evenings in Boston, the ancient rivals played deep into the night, each game longer and more excruciating than the one before: four hours 20 minutes; five hours, two minutes; and--in the longest postseason game ever played--five hours, 49 minutes on Monday night. The two teams combined for 15 hours, 11 minutes of baseball played to exhaustion and exhilaration before three packed houses at Fenway Park.
Let down by a thin bullpen, Torre brought in Rivera in Game 5 with runners at first and third, no outs and ahead 4--3, a lead already narrowed at the outset of the inning by an Ortiz home run off wobbly setup man Tom Gordon. Rivera immediately got an out, but at the expense of a run, as Jason Varitek flied deep enough to centerfield to bring home the tying run. It was the third blown save of this postseason for Rivera, a man who had blown only two in 32 previous postseason chances.
A game Rivera gave Torre a shutout inning thereafter, finally leaving after throwing 62 pitches over consecutive nights. The Yankees would lose yet another war of attrition, this time with Esteban Loaiza, their seventh pitcher, surrendering the deciding hit. The Red Sox, who birthed the Impossible Dream season of 1967, kept hope alive to complete Mission Impossible of 2004: coming back from a three-games-to-none deficit to win a seven-game series. Baseball teams in such a hole were 0--25 alltime, while pro basketball and hockey teams so challenged were 2--236.
At the rate the Red Sox and the Yankees beat up on one another in the ALCS (they ranked one-two in runs, respectively, in the league this season) while the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros went at it with almost as much gusto in the National League Championship Series (they ranked first and sixth in runs, respectively, in the league), the World Series figures to be a shootout reminiscent of the one in 1993. That year the Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies combined for 81 runs in six games, and one fan was moved to hoist a sign that read will pitch middle relief for food. All four LCS teams this year featured deep lineups with quick-strike capability but disproportionately thin pitching staffs.
the national league Championship Series, for instance, seemed to be a glorified game of HORSE between Carlos Beltran of the Astros and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals (page 48). With a 3--0 victory in Houston on Monday night, the Astros took a three-games-to-two lead into Wednesday's Game 6.
The 10 LCS games through Monday featured a total of 33 home runs. The rate of 3.3 dingers per game was 50% higher than the regular-season rate of 2.2. So much for pitching and defense in October.