NEW YORK – Mariano Rivera showed up in time to save the New York Yankees (search), putting his grief aside just long enough to do what he does best.
Hours after jetting back from a funeral for relatives in Panama, baseball's greatest closer stopped the surging Boston Red Sox (search), who had cut an eight-run deficit to one.
Rivera got Kevin Millar to pop out to strand the tying run at third base in the eighth inning, then finished out a thrilling 10-7 win for the Yankees in Tuesday night's opener of the AL championship series.
"It was tough, leaving my family there," the soft-spoken Rivera said. "My fans and my teammates helped me out big time. ... That was something special."
Hideki Matsui (search) tied an ALCS record with five RBIs, four off Curt Schilling (search), who allowed six runs in three innings and isn't sure whether his ailing ankle will keep him out of the rest of the series.
On a night that generated the kind of excitement expected from these great rivals, Mike Mussina was perfect through six innings before Mark Bellhorn doubled on a drive that hit the left-field wall on a hop with one out in the seventh. Bernie Williams drove in three runs, including a two-run double in the eighth that gave Rivera some breathing room.
"It took a lot for him to go out there tonight," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. "He's the most mentally tough person I've ever played with."
For much of the night it seemed like a laugher, with the Yankees ahead 6-0 by the third and 8-0 in the sixth.
"It was like it was too good to be true," New York manager Joe Torre said.
But after Bellhorn's hit on Mussina's 86th pitch, the stubbly faced pitcher's huge curveball quickly became hittable.
Millar hit a two-run double with two outs and scored on a single by Trot Nixon. Tanyon Sturtze relieved and Jason Varitek hit a two-run homer on his third pitch, pulling the Red Sox to 8-5.
David Ortiz made it 8-7 with a two-run triple in the eighth off Tom Gordon, who would have been the Yankees' closer had Rivera not returned. That's when the crowd got up to welcome Rivera, perhaps the biggest factor in New York's six AL pennants and four World Series titles since 1996.
"Turns out, we really needed him," Mussina said. "I'm sure glad he came back. I know it was tough for him. I know it's been an emotional few days."
Rivera had returned to his native country Sunday after two relatives were electrocuted in the swimming pool of his home, and arrived back at the ballpark in the second inning after a private plane arranged by the Yankees took him to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
"My teammates needed me there," Rivera said. "When I went to the bullpen in the fifth inning, I was ready."
Given a huge ovation by the sellout crowd of 56,135, he fell behind 2-1 to Millar, who popped out on the next pitch.
"What he did tonight was phenomenal with all the tragedy he's been through," Millar said.
Williams doubled in the bottom half off Mike Timlin, a ball that soared over Manny Ramirez in left.
Varitek and Orlando Cabrera made the ninth interesting, too, singling with one out. Bill Mueller, whose two-run homer off Rivera beat the Yankees at Fenway Park on July 24, hit a comebacker that Rivera turned into a game-ending double play, Jeter, Alex Rodriguez gave Rivera hearty hugs. First baseman John Olerud gave him the ball following his 31st postseason save.
Not bad, for starters. Pedro Martinez pitches for the Red Sox on Wednesday night against Jon Lieber. Martinez is sure to be reminded by fans of his remark last month that the Yankees are his "daddy."
"Each game is going to be an emotional roller-coaster," Torre said.
Mussina, assuming the ace role on a rotation that's struggled, had come within a strike of a perfect game at Fenway Park on Sept. 2, 2001, before pinch-hitter Carl Everett singled. Mussina ended New York's streak of losses in four straight playoff openers, striking out eight and allowing four runs and four hits in 6 2-3 innings. He struck out the top of the order -- all looking -- in the fourth inning, part of a streak of five straight strikeouts, tying the LCS record.
"You start thinking about how this guy might be going through something special here," Williams said.
Matsui's first-inning double drove in New York's first run, and his three-run double in the third made him 5-for-9 against Schilling. Matsui added a run-scoring single in the seventh off Tim Wakefield, who also allowed a solo homer to Kenny Lofton. It was Wakefield who gave up Aaron Boone's 11th-inning that ended the epic Game 7 last year.
Schilling, who led the major leagues with 21 wins, look the loss -- he had been 6-0 in nine postseason starts since 1993, never allowing more than two earned runs. His right ankle, which he first injured in September, was injected Tuesday with a painkiller, and he had trouble pushing off the pitching rubber and hitting the targets set by Varitek, his catcher.
"If I can't go out there with something better than that, I'm not going back out there," Schilling said.
Doubles by Gary Sheffield and Matsui followed by Williams' single made it 2-0 in the first. With the bases loaded in the third, Matsui lined a pitch off the right-field wall to clear the bases. Sheffield was so pumped up after he slid across the plate that he smacked Rodriguez's back so hard that A-Rod's helmet was knocked off.
Right away, the fans started taunting the Red Sox with chants of "Who's your daddy?" and "1918," a reminder of the last year Boston won the World Series.
Notes: Matsui tied a record for RBIs shared by Paul Blair, Don Baylor, John Valentin, Bret Boone and Adam Kennedy. ... Varitek set a Red Sox record for postseason homers with eight, one more than Nomar Garciaparra. ... Johnny Damon struck out four times. ... Schilling's start was his shortest since July 18, 2001, when his outing for Arizona at San Diego was cut short by a power failure after he pitched two innings.