Yankees drive a stake in the Red Sox

NEW YORK -- The rain fell before an ominous wind kicked up in the ninth, a sure sign the ghosts of 2004 were stirring on Stephen King's command. Suddenly the Yankees were losing another ballgame to King's beloved Red Sox, and for the first time the home team's fan base had credible cause to fear the unfathomable:

A collapse that would make the 2004 American League Championship Series feel like a split-squad loss in March.

As Brian Cashman watched it unfold, watched the Red Sox steal four bases -- Dave Roberts style -- on Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, the thoughts racing through his head weren't fit for family consumption. "I don't think you can repeat them," he said.

Cashman swore that he didn't default back to the historic ALCS collapse even for a millisecond, and that he didn't doubt his Yanks would come back to tie in the ninth and win in the 10th. The general manager wasn't sweating the small stuff when he was ready to make a big-picture proclamation that would've made Rex Ryan proud.

"It's not an urgency situation; we're making the playoffs," Cashman said. "We plan to do a lot of damage, and we're going to try to run the table."

Try? There's nothing in the Steinbrenner mission statement about trying. The Yankees are in the business of doing.

"We're getting it done," Cashman said.

Getting it done in the Bronx means only one thing -- winning the franchise's 28th World Series title -- and this was as close as Cashman will ever come to guaranteeing a parade.

For one night, anyway, the general manager had walked the talk. If he didn't directly order Joe Girardi to trade Dustin Moseley for Phil Hughes, Cashman sure didn't discourage the move.

He wasn't certain the 2010 Yankees had the same genetic coding as the 2000 Yankees, who lost 15 of their final 18 games -- including their last seven -- before taking the World Series from the Mets.

So the GM said enough was enough. Seize the ball from the Moseleys, Mitres and Gaudins, give it to the Hugheses, Jobas and Riveras, and mute all panicked voices for good.

Girardi finally played a game for keeps, and the defending champs effectively killed off the Red Sox and booked their ticket back to the tournament.

"I think it would have been devastating to lose a game at home like that," Alex Rodriguez said.

A-Rod was facing an 0-2 count in the seventh, Red Sox up 1-0, when those ghosts of 2004 were just about ready to make the trip from their burial ground across the street.

If 2009 had never happened, you could've closed your eyes hard enough to picture Rodriguez hitting a tapper back to Daisuke Matsuzaka, and then slapping at Dice-K's glove, and then ending up as the enduring symbol of another Yankees team in free fall.

Only in the middle of baseball's most ill-tempered rivalry, A-Rod is no longer the ring-free slugger who took an old maid's swipe at Bronson Arroyo's glove. He is no longer the isolated drama queen whose pretty-boy face lost a fight with Jason Varitek's mitt.

Rodriguez is a World Series champion, good for six home runs and 18 RBIs in last year's postseason. He walks to the plate with a gravitas he didn't have when the Yankees, his Yankees, suffered the most humiliating meltdown in franchise history six years back.

So nobody was too surprised when A-Rod sent that 0-2 pitch over the right-center wall for a two-run homer, leaving Dice-K in something of a catatonic trance. Rodriguez had entered the game with three homers in his past five at-bats. Even though A-Rod said Dice-K pitched "as good as I've seen him," Matsuzaka wasn't likely to keep the slugger in the house all night.

Rivera was summoned for the four-out save, and that was supposed to be that. No Pedroia, no Youkilis, no chance. But Boston stole all those bases in the wind-blown rain, stole the save from Mo, and sent out its own midnight assassin, Jonathan Papelbon, to give the Yankees their 14th defeat in the past 20 games.

Had Papelbon done his job, Yankees fans would've risen today to the real possibility their team wouldn't reach the playoffs. A.J. Burnett was set to go for the Yanks in Toronto, and Clay Buchholz was set to go for the Red Sox in Chicago. If those games turned in Boston's favor, the Red Sox would go to bed Monday night controlling their fate.

I know, I know: By definition, nobody controls his or her fate. But you get the idea. The Yankees couldn't let the Red Sox escape from New York on Sunday night, not after making the dramatic decision to start Hughes, and not after Hughes pitched like he can't wait for the best-of-five portion of the schedule to start.

And yes, it felt like October in the Stadium when Robinson Cano's single tied it in the ninth, and when Juan Miranda's bases-loaded walk won it in the 10th.

Playing for this team in this market, Rodriguez said, "You're not going to go a whole year and not get challenged."

As it turned out, the Yanks got challenged in a way they never expected, in a way they never wanted.

"I'm not worried about not making the playoffs," Cashman said. "We're worried about getting the team lined up and running the table."

The Red Sox are going, going, gone. No longer do Cashman's Yankees have to worry about making the tournament.

They just have to worry about winning it.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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