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NEW YORK -- The night began with the most reserved and dignified of all the New York Yankees, Mariano Rivera, quietly laying two red roses at home plate; the night ended with the most exuberant Yankee of all, Nick Swisher, getting a face full of what, for one night at least, we will call Sheppard's Pie.
In between the two acts, nothing felt quite right at Yankee Stadium on Friday night, from the stifling heat that wrapped the ballpark in a wet blanket, to the silence of the public address system in tribute to the late Bob Sheppard, and the indisputable somberness that hung in the air long after the pregame ceremony honoring Sheppard and George Steinbrenner, who died within two days of each other earlier this week.
When, exactly, did it start to feel as if that most routine of events, an ordinary major league ballgame, had actually taken place?
"Maybe right now?" said Swisher, who provided the dramatic ending to a very heavy night in the Bronx with a bottom-of-the-ninth single that drove in Curtis Grandersonand provided the Yankees with a 5-4 win over their closest pursuers in the AL East race, the Tampa Bay Rays.
On its merits, the game didn't really need any added ingredients to spice it up: At the traditional midway point of the season, only two games separated the first-place Yankees and the second-place Rays, with three games to be played here this weekend.
The Yankees had their ace, CC Sabathia, going in Friday's series opener; in Sunday's finale, the Rays will counter with their own, David Price.
And as Derek Jeter acknowledged before Friday's game, in the world of The Boss, there were only two truly must-win games for the Yankees. "The Rays and the Mets," he said, before being prompted to include the Boston Red Sox.
|Nick Swisher points skyward after his winning RBI.|
The games against the Mets were important because of the intra-city rivalry, and the games against the Rays were personal because the team was from Tampa, Fla., The Boss' adopted hometown.
But of course, The Boss wasn't here to see this one, and neither was Bob Sheppard here to announce the batters in his inimitable style.
The fact that both men were being honored posthumously only added to the air of unreality in the ballpark. In honor of Sheppard, the PA announcements were silenced for the night, giving the place the quiet feel of some sepia-toned ballpark out of another era.
The constant, between-innings tributes to George Steinbrenner on the giant video screen in center field made it difficult to remember that the night's main event was still a ballgame between the two best baseball teams in the American League, which is to say the world.
"It's strange without the PA," Joe Girardi said. "It's quiet. It's a weird feeling when you don't have that extra noise at a ballpark, and I think that changes the atmosphere."
No more than the pregame ceremony, in which Jeter delivered a mini-eulogy to Steinbrenner and Sheppard after Rivera delivered the roses just before a Marine Corps bugler blew a stirring version of "Taps."
"When Mariano came out and put the roses down, that got to me," said Jorge Posada, who had known Steinbrenner for 15 years, since he was a minor leaguer. "I got emotional and I lost it a little."
Girardi, too, teared up in his postgame interview when recounting the moment, and the screens showed Jeter, normally as emotional as a Vulcan, bowing his head and wiping his eyes in the dugout.
But then, there was a game to play, and for the first five innings, the Yankees' bats were mostly silent, managing just two singles and one run off Tampa Bay starter James Shields, a pitcher they were 7-2 against. Sabathia struggled but kept the game close, allowing three runs but wiggling out of jams in the third, fifth and sixth innings.
"It was important for us to win this one, but you saw the way we came out tonight," Posada said. "We were a little off."
Then came the bottom of the sixth, and suddenly, it started to feel like a Yankees game again. With two out, Robinson Cano whacked a laser beam to right-center that left the park faster than it reached home plate, and the Yankees were within a run. Then, Posada, perhaps the most emotional of the fabled "core four" that helped Steinbrenner's teams win five World Series championships, was set free on a 3-0 pitch and deposited a bomb into the second deck in right to tie the game. It was the first time in his career Posada went deep on a 3-0 count.
At that point, the malaise that had engulfed the park seemed to lift. Music blared from the loudspeakers. A few vulgar chants cropped up. It had all the feel of what would wind up being a routine Yankees victory. But there was still one more test to pass.
It came in the seventh, when Sabathia loaded the bases on two singles and an intentional walk with none out, and the potent heart of the Rays' order -- Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist and Kelly Shoppach -- looked to turn a fairy tale into a horror story.
But as Sabathia has done time and again this season, he toughened up to strike out Pena, got Zobrist to bounce to third on a play that allowed the go-ahead run to score, and ended the threat by inducing Shoppach to bounce out to second.
"To me, that was the key to the game right there," Girardi said. "Giving up only one run there was huge, but that's what aces do; they minimize the damage."
Still, additional heroics were required, and depending on your point of view, it was either perfectly fitting or wildly inappropriate that it would be Swisher who provided them.
First, he tied the game leading off the eighth with a moon shot of a home run to right off Joaquin Benoit. Then, after the prescripted ending had failed to take hold -- Jeter, the Boss' obvious favorite, fouled off three two-strike pitches before flailing at a Dan Wheeler curveball with Curtis Granderson on second and Brett Gardner on first in the ninth -- Swisher came up again, against Lance Cormier. The count went to 2-1, and then Swisher lashed out at a fastball and lined it to right, scoring Granderson for the walk-off win.
"Just another one of those moments," Jeter said. "Just another one of those special moments at Yankee Stadium."
Girardi, trying to put a poetic ending on a ballgame that felt more like a street fight, said it was fitting that Swisher delivered the game winner, since he and Steinbrenner both came from Ohio.
"Mr. Steinbrenner loved his Yankees and he loved his Buckeyes," Girardi said. "And a Buckeye did it for him."
Said Jeter: "The Boss didn't like Michigan, so I figured I'd strike out and have Ohio State give him one final victory."
Almost lost in the spirit of remembrance and nostalgia was the fact that the Yankees won an important game not only for the memory of their late owner, but also for their own security in a divisional race that is not likely to get any easier between now and October.
"I thought the club played like Mr. Steinbrenner would have wanted: fought back twice, tied the score twice, then we won it in the end," Girardi said.
Said Swisher: "I think The Boss woulda liked this one."
Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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