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Yankees 3 @ Padres 2

Sunday June 23, 2002

Mussina ND10-3 | 6.1IP | 4H | 2ER | 4BB | 7K | 4.51ERA

SAN DIEGO -- When the Yankees were swept by the Seattle Mariners on May 5, they stood seven games behind the Boston Red Sox in the loss column and 4 1/2 behind them in the AL East standings.

But instead of panicking, as many teams have done in the past when faced with adversity, New York remained calm and kept playing their game. Now, seven weeks later, the Yankees are alone in first place, a half-game ahead of the rival Red Sox after defeating the San Diego Padres 3-2 at Qualcomm Stadium.

"It seemed like every time we got to that half-game mark, we'd lose that next game," said manager Joe Torre. "It's nice to be in first place, but we're only in June."

The Yankees are now 47-28, owners of the best record in baseball. Boston, which lost Sunday in Los Angeles to finish off a Dodgers sweep, is 45-27, looking up at the Yankees for the first time since April 14.

"We've had to play our tails off just to stay with them," Torre said. "They did something this weekend that they haven't done, especially on the road, which is lose all three games. They've been such a good road team early on. We've had to play hard."

Mike Mussina, who got a no-decision on Sunday despite tossing a solid 6 1/3 innings, said that the divisional race is far from over, noting that the Sox will be getting a big bat inserted into their lineup when Manny Ramirez returns from the DL this week.

"It's only a half-game, and they still have us in the loss column," Mussina said. "We still have to play well because they're going to keep playing well. Manny's not even back in the lineup yet. We still have a lot of work to do."

Since that sweep at the hands of Seattle, the Bronx Bombers are 29-14, while Boston has gone 25-20. The Sox may have fallen victim to a June swoon of sorts, going 9-12 this month.

"We just have to keep it going," said Bernie Williams. "I'm glad that this Interleague stuff is over with, and now we get to play the teams in our division, where we have a better idea of who we're facing and how to approach them."

A closer look shows that Williams may want to take that statement back. Interleague play has given the Yankees a boost, as their 9-6 record has lifted them four games in the standings. Boston has not fared well against the Senior Circuit, going 5-10, including sweeps at the hands of Arizona and Los Angeles.

"There's still a long way to go," said Jason Giambi. "I haven't felt like we've been chasing. We've felt that if we just kept playing good baseball and kept ourselves close, we'd get back out in front. I never felt like we had to keep up with Boston."

The Yankees and Sox will meet eight more times this season, with six of those contests taking place at Yankee Stadium. With 90 games left in the season, no one in the Yankees clubhouse is getting too giddy about their new penthouse status.

But with Andy Pettitte back from the disabled list, and Orlando Hernandez and Mariano Rivera very close to returning from injuries, New York may be hitting its stride at the perfect time.

"You don't want to get way back in the standings, but you really don't worry about the standings. You just go out and try to play your type of baseball, whether it's hitting home runs or doing the little things," Yankees reliever Mike Stanton said. "I still think that the key to us winning is our starting rotation. Now that Andy's back, we'll get him back on track, then Duque will come back and we should hit on all cylinders."

The Yankees are a veteran team, one that knows how quickly fortunes can turn. After making up all of those games in the last seven weeks, they know that they will have to keep playing at their current level if they want to hold off the Sox in the long run.

"Obviously first place is better than second place. We've been playing pretty good lately," said Derek Jeter. "It feels good, especially considering the way Boston's been playing. They've been playing well the entire year, and we've been hanging around. Now we're in first, but it means nothing unless you continue to win."

Spoken like a man who's been there.


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