Red Sox 3, Yankees 2

There were home runs that weren't, and home runs that were. There were bizarre moments that revolved -- don't they all? -- around Manny Ramirez. There was exquisite pitching, though none of it by the people you would have expected. There was lots of rain, chasing away only a handful of fans and none of the electricity. There was a ninth-inning rally by the visitors, a normally impenetrable closer giving up the lead, and finally, a stunned silence hanging over Yankee Stadium.

With a pair of manufactured runs off New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning, the Boston Red Sox stormed off with a shocking 3-2 win in front of 55,128, accounting for a two-game swing in what suddenly looks like a manic race for the American League East crown.

Three outs away from staring at a 41/2-game deficit, the Red Sox instead will wake up Saturday morning (checking the as-yet bleak weather report first thing, no doubt) trailing by only 21/2 games. This comes one month and one day after the Red Sox trailed the Yankees by a season-high 101/2 games.

With two outs in the ninth, the tying run already in the books and the go-ahead run at second base, Johnny Damon sent a Rivera fastball into center field for a bloop single -- falling in front of Yankees center fielder Kenny Lofton, who inexplicably hesitated in his pursuit. It scored pinch runner Gabe Kapler from second base.

"Are you trying to blame me?" Lofton said defensively in response to repeated questions about the play.

Rivera apparently did. As the ball landed in front of Lofton, the normally unflappable Rivera (4-2) held his arms aloft, yelling, "Catch the ball!"

"From my view, I thought there was a little chance [of Lofton's making the catch]," Rivera said. "But if there had been a chance, he would have caught it."

Rivera is as much to blame as anyone for the ninth-inning collapse. He issued a leadoff walk to Trot Nixon, then plunked Kevin Millar with one out, putting the go-ahead runs on base. Orlando Cabrera, the new Red Sox shortstop -- who knows only as much about this rivalry as he could divine from his years of banishment with the Montreal Expos -- poked a single into right field to bring home the tying run, setting the stage for Damon.

"We were definitely embarrassed by the way we were playing earlier this year," Damon said. "We're playing baseball now. . . . This showed we can come back against the best."

Over the last two seasons, including postseason, the Yankees and Red Sox have now faced each other 40 times, producing a pair of brawls, a historic moment (Aaron Boone's pennant-winning homer in Game 7 of last year's ALCS) -- and exactly 20 wins for each side.

None of them seem to contain any sense of normalcy. Ramirez, the Red Sox's lovably goofy left fielder was to blame for much of the goofiness Friday night.

With Mark Bellhorn on first base in the top of the first, Ramirez, the Red Sox's slugger and MVP candidate, yanked a drive down the third base line that third base umpire Tim Timmons immediately ruled a home run. As Ramirez jogged around the bases, Yankees players, along with Manager Joe Torre, converged upon Timmons to argue that the ball was foul, whereupon Timmons conferred with his fellow umps and (correctly) changed the call.

It's not as if Ramirez goes looking for bizarreness. He just is, and it just seems to find him. Four innings after his non-home run, Ramirez reached into the left field stands to snatch Miguel Cairo's deep fly ball away from a would-be Jeffrey Maier and rob Cairo of a home run.

Except that some people, Cairo included, were not aware Ramirez had caught the ball -- perhaps because the umpires never signaled anything. Cairo circled the bases, and even made a skyward pointing gesture as he touched home plate.

"I thought, 'Boy, he's pretty happy about that homer,' " said Red Sox Manager Terry Francona. "I couldn't see what happened."

Once everyone realized what had occurred, Cairo gazed out incredulously from the Yankees' dugout, and the fans in the left field corner showed Ramirez their appreciation by dousing him with unknown liquids.

The elements conspired to make this a short night for Yankees starter Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, as he lasted only three innings, coming out following the second rain delay. The Yankees' subsequent loss was only the second in his 13 starts this season -- one measure of his unfathomable value to them.

More consistent than Mike Mussina or Javier Vazquez, and less thick-skulled than Kevin Brown -- who is out for at least another couple of weeks after breaking his hand by slugging a clubhouse wall -- Hernandez is the Yankees' likely Game 1 starter in the opening round of the playoffs.

Mussina, Vazquez and Brown, of course, all make at least $9 million this season, while Hernandez was signed off baseball's scrap heap in mid-March for a paltry $500,000, plus incentives. It is the equivalent of buying a stable full of expensive, impeccably bred racehorses, then sending the old barnyard nag to the starting line at the Kentucky Derby.

With Hernandez out of the game, it was left to mop-up man Tanyon Sturtze to get the game to the formidable back end of the Yankees' bullpen, which he did with 32/3 scoreless innings. Set-up man Tom Gordon held up his end as well, retiring all four batters he faced.

Remarkably, it was Rivera who failed to hold up his end. Both of his losses this season and two of his four blown saves have been against the Red Sox.

"This," Millar said, "is Sox and Yankees. These games are amazing."

Boston left fielder Manny Ramirez leaps to rob New York's Miguel Cairo of a home run in the fifth inning. Red Sox are 21/2 games behind the Yankees.