NEW YORK -- Not only had the Yankees fallen into a precarious 3-1 hole in the American League Championship Series, but they had no order in the late innings. Their preferred recipe for victory is for the starter to hand the ball to Kerry Wood, who in turn hands it to the great Mariano Rivera.
It took until Game 5 for manager Joe Girardi to be able to manage a game just like that. So after CC Sabathia gritted his way through six innings and left with a 6-2 lead, it was time for that dominant 1-2 combo to finally resurface.
They quickly made up for lost time. Wood, in particular, stood out. The righty -- who was acquired from the Indians on July 31 -- came up with six big outs.
"Tremendous," said Rivera. "Outstanding. Outstanding job. Kerry was outstanding throwing from the bullpen."
And after the Yankees added an insurance run in the eighth, Rivera did what he just about always does this time of year -- he slammed the door for the final three outs in his first appearance since Game 1 on Friday.
The orderly finish -- and being able to play from ahead -- was particularly sweet for the Yankees after the way things went in Games 3 and 4. In both of those games, the Rangers exploded in the late innings against New York's bullpen, taking away any shot for the offense to have a comeback, such as the epic in Game 1.
"It's important to come and win, period," said Rivera. "Not just for the bullpen to have a good night."
But shutdown relief sure does help.
Though Wood gave up a single to Elvis Andrus, the first batter he faced, and then uncorked a wild pitch, he quickly made up for it. First, he struck out Michael Young. Then, with the ever-dangerous Josh Hamilton at the plate, Wood picked off Andrus at second for a huge out.
"I went with the no-look pitch and then I went with the inside move and I just thought for some reason, I don't know why I did another one -- I never double up on it, he probably thought nobody ever doubles up on it -- but I just had a feeling he might have caught me off guard," Wood said. "I didn't think I'd be able to get my foot down and make the throw in time. [Derek] Jeter came behind, and I was able to make a decent throw."
And then he struck out Hamilton, and mowed through a 1-2-3 eighth.
"He's been doing it for us all year long -- ever since he came over here," said Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher. "It just seems like he's got his flavor for baseball back. His stuff is sharp. He's right where he needs to be. I'm glad he's on our side."
This was what the Yankees have come to expect from Wood, who posted an ERA of 0.69 in his 24 appearances with the club in the regular season.
"Well, when you look at the numbers he's had with us, I mean, he's been so good," said Girardi. "It's hard to say why we knew he would do that. I felt that he would pitch well here, I did. But he has been so good for us. Today, two innings, gives up a hit and then picks Andrus off -- he's picked him off twice in this series; Kerry has been so good for us."
After spending two years with a non-contending Indians team, Wood is back in the middle of the action.
"It's been great," Wood said. "I can't complain. I'm in a good situation with a good group of guys in here. I'm in the postseason again so this is what it's all about. It's been an exciting few months."
Once a phenom starter with the Cubs -- who could forget his 20-strikeout game in 1998? -- arm injuries threatened his career. Albeit in a different role, he is dominating again.
"The toughest time was probably dealing with the shoulder when I was out for 22 months," said Wood. "That was definitely the low point. Just keep grinding. This makes it all worth it. It's all a few years behind me now and this is why I went through that -- for this opportunity."
And the guy who comes in after Wood is considered by many to be the best closer of all time.
The key for the Yankees is to line up the first six or seven innings so that Wood and Rivera can get a chance to do theirs.
"Anything can happen," said Rivera. "Two games left. Anything can happen. We just have to believe and continue playing hard. You have to do whatever you have to do to do your job. It doesn't matter how you do it as long as you do your job."