NEW YORK -– On opening night in the NFL, it made perfect sense to remember that losing in baseball does not hurt nearly as much as it does in football, where all 16 games come across as win-or-else propositions.
A rough night in the big leagues? Hey, it's only one of 162, right? Even in baseball's version of a smashmouth matchup, and even with September offering little margin for error, the New York Yankees could lose the Thursday night opener of their series with the Boston Red Sox in the 10th inning, brush the dirt from their pants and quickly erase the bad memory by beating their blood rivals three times by sundown Sunday.
Andy Pettitte can start undoing the playoff-race damage in the Bronx on Friday night, and of course he isn't afraid of the stage or the stakes. He's only the most prolific postseason winner of all time.
But as they exited their own building after this endless Game 1, losers by a 9-8 count, the Yankees had to know that this loss felt much more like one of 16, not one of 162. They had to be feeling a little like the Baltimore Ravens were feeling in Denver, as a playoff contender in this sport occasionally confronts a defeat that doesn't get tossed in the bin with the other 65 or 70 it absorbs over a six-month haul.
Like this one. This one hurt, and it hurt a lot. The Yankees had rallied from a five-run deficit in the seventh to hand the ball and a one-run lead to Mariano Rivera in the ninth, turning to the incomparable No. 42, age 43, on a third consecutive night.
The crowd stood and roared its approval as Rivera emerged from the bullpen, glove in his right hand as he started his familiar, purposeful jog from the warning track to the mound under the haunting sounds of "Enter Sandman." The Red Sox had more than their fair share of success against Rivera in the past, even had his number for a bit, but nobody here expected a rewind of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.
The Yankees had won nine of their previous 10 home games, and 15 of their previous 18. Rivera had gone 1-2-3 against the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday night and had completed a four-out save Wednesday night, reminding everyone why Joe Girardi told ESPNNewYork.com the other day that he would contact his retiring closer in the offseason to make sure he isn't interested in one more go.
Though Girardi maintained again before this opener with Boston that he'll make that call, he has to operate under the assumption that Rivera is a goner, an assumption that inspired him to put Mo on the mound yet again. The manager knows his closer has the rest of his life to rest.
Rivera got a liner to first out of David Ortiz, who had a .361 career batting average against him, and he got a soft dribbler to first out of Daniel Nava. One strike away from pay dirt, Rivera surrendered a full-count single to Mike Napoli before a pinch runner, Quintin Berry, stole second base. Austin Romine's throw bounced through Derek Jeter's legs and into the outfield, allowing Berry to take third.
Rivera still had the night in the palm of his legendary right hand, and only Stephen Drew stood in the way of his 42nd save. But the Red Sox aren't the White Sox, a truth painfully evident on Rivera's second pitch to Drew, a bloop single that ruined everything in the Bronx.
"A broken bat over [Robinson] Cano's head," Rivera explained. "Part of the game."
Some unfunny Yankee follies ensued. Somehow, some way, after nearly getting picked off first base, Alfonso Soriano allowed himself to get picked off second base with one out in the bottom of the ninth. "I tried to get [to third] with less than two outs," he said, "and make it easy on the hitter."
He made it much tougher on his team instead. On the Yes Network broadcast, Girardi was seen lowering his head in disgust as he hung over the dugout rail. He knew Joba Chamberlain was his only option in the 10th, which meant it was time to start writing a rough draft of his consolation speech.
Joe West, the umpire who detests four-hour-and-32-minute Yankees-Red Sox games like these, didn't give Chamberlain a two-strike check swing on Shane Victorino, who drove home the winning run on the next pitch (of course he did). The defensively overmatched Romine failed to handle the short-hop throw from Ichiro Suzuki (of course he did), and soon enough West was ejecting Joba and Girardi was saying the ump got the Victorino call wrong.
"I thought he went," the manager said, "but you have to be able to overcome things."
The Yankees overcame plenty in this game, which made its result that much more difficult to accept. Boston had turned their best pitcher, Ivan Nova, upside down, forcing him to throw 96 mostly fruitless pitches over four innings -- four innings! -- before unloading on poor Preston Claiborne.
But then there was that six-run seventh and the comforting sight of Mo Rivera in the ninth. The Yankees were one lousy strike away from maybe their greatest victories of the year, and they crash-landed nine games back of Boston in the AL East.
"It was tough," Rivera said, "but we have to forget about it."
"You can't feel sorry for yourself," Girardi said. "I like the way our guys fought back, and if we continue to play like that, we're going to win a lot of games."
It's baseball, after all, a sport that provides so many immediate chances to right so many wrongs. But when the Yankees staggered out of their building in the first hour of Friday morning, this didn't feel like a baseball loss.
It felt like a football loss. You know, one of 16.