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Yanks pull off yet another thriller

NEW YORK -- The Yankees, desperate for a victory against the Twins in Game 2 of their American League Division Series, came across the ideal strategy in the early going: Swing very hard against Brad Radke and launch balls to sections of the Bronx where even Torii Hunter couldn't catch them.

Derek Jeter led off the first inning by reaching the black seats in center field, where only Reggie Jackson and Jay Buhner had ventured in postseason play. Gary Sheffield homered two innings later. Then Alex Rodriguez went deep to give New York a 4-3 lead in the fifth, and all was right with the world.

But these Yankees don't do things neatly or conveniently, their $184 million payroll or 101 regular-season victories notwithstanding.

Mariano Rivera blew only his third save in 33 career postseason opportunities Wednesday night, and Hunter nearly sucked the life out of Yankee Stadium with a solo homer in the top of the 12th. But the Yankees are the Yankees, and the Twins are the Twins, and you sensed it wasn't going to be that easy for Minnesota.

You sensed correctly.

The Yankees saved their season with a comeback that was impressive even by their gold-plated standards. They bunched three walks and a clutch double by A-Rod, chasing Twins closer Joe Nathan in the bottom of the 12th. A Hideki Matsui sacrifice fly then drove in the winning run and New York beat Minnesota 7-6 to pull even as the series shifts to the Midwest for the weekend.

The Yankees avoided an emotionally harrowing off-day with the victory. The team would have been down 2-0 heading to the Metrodome -- never much fun for a visiting club -- with one more guaranteed confrontation with Johan Santana, the best pitcher on the planet at the moment in the non-Curt Schilling category.

Instead, they're dead even and reveling in their 62nd come-from-behind victory of the season. Their 61 during the regular season set a major-league record.

"That's emotional right there,'' Sheffield said. "I told guys earlier, if they haven't been in the playoffs, that it's an emotional situation. You get the lead. They get the lead. And you just fight to the end.''

Or you sit in the dugout and watch, and feel your stomach churn like an espresso maker.

"About three or four times during the game I said, 'What am I doing this for? Why don't I retire?' '' said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "It's grueling. It's grueling.''

That double-grueling is not a typographical error.

Several moments in this game will stand out in both Yankees and Twins lore, and a number of players made memorable plays. Corey Koskie tied the game 5-5 in the eighth with a ground-rule double to left field against Rivera, the culmination of a classic eight-pitch at-bat.

Tanyon Sturtze, who's taken over as bullpen Plan C for the Yankees after Rivera and Tom Gordon, contributed some serious relief work for New York. And Rodriguez, maligned this year for an inability to hit in the clutch, is coming up huge in October. He's hitting .600 (6-for-10) in the first two games against Minnesota, and if this keeps up no one will remember that he hit .248 with runners in scoring position this season.

"He's one of these guys who's loosey-goosey around here, then all of a sudden the playoffs come and he's the most serious guy on the team,'' Sheffield said. "It's good to see. He wants to be up there when the pressure is on, and he's coming through.''

Rodriguez also seems to appreciate the opportunity to become part of Yankee tradition. "When Yogi Berra gave me a hug yesterday, I think to this moment it's my most special day of being a Yankee,'' he said.

Once the stadium stopped shaking, there were two particular pieces of managerial strategy to reflect upon.

From the Twins end, did manager Ron Gardenhire push his luck by sending out Nathan for a third inning? Nathan had pitched two innings only twice in 73 regular-season appearances. But after he threw a total of 36 pitches in the 10th and 11th, Gardenhire looked him in the eye and Nathan said, "I'm fine. I'm ready to go.'' So he'd get one more shot at New York.

The decision was easier for Gardenhire given that today is an off-day and his main alternatives were lefty J.C. Romero, who went 2-3 with a 6.92 ERA in September, and rookie right-hander Jesse Crain, who spent two-thirds of this season with Rochester in the Triple-A International League.

Problem was, Nathan just ran out of everything. His mechanics got out of sync and he threw nine straight balls. Then A-Rod touched him for a ground-rule double to tie it 6-6.

"It just didn't work out for us,'' Gardenhire said. "It's a little disappointing now. Joe feels terrible, but he did everything he could possibly do. I probably left him out there too long, but the options ... I didn't like them too well, either.''

Torre, as usual, made the right move. When everybody in the stadium figured he'd go to Tony Clark as a pinch-hitter in the 12th, Torre decided to stick with Miguel Cairo, a free swinger who had 360 at-bats and only 18 walks in the regular season. Cairo walked on four pitches to start the Yankees' rally.

"The one thing I know Cairo is going to do for me is have an at-bat,'' Torre said. "He's not going to hit a home run, but he's going to work an at-bat. He knows how to do that.''

Matsui's game-ending sacrifice fly off Romero was hit to relatively shallow right, but Twins right fielder Jacque Jones wasn't able to plant his feet and get much zip on the throw. Jeter slid in before catcher Pat Borders' tag, and the Yankees were back in business in the series.

"It was certainly one of our more memorable games,'' Torre said. "But I don't think I want to watch it again.''

Maybe when he retires. He's having too much fun at the moment to think about that.

Jerry Crasnick is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. He can be reached via e-mail.