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07/07/08 1:15 AM ET

New backdrop for Red Sox-Yankees

Classic rivalry rolls on, with unexpected guest adding intrigue

NEW YORK -- So, what did we learn from the long-delayed resumption of baseball's Holy War?

Besides, that is, that it's good to be the Tampa Bay Rays playing Kansas City while the Red Sox and the Yankees are wearing each other out in the Bronx?

The storylines were in Yankee Stadium, but the American League East frontline remained in St. Petersburg, where the Rays, by picking apart the Royals thrice, picked up a game and a half on both the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Tampa Bay, an equal-opportunity deployer.

The Rays now sit five lengths ahead of Boston -- seven games in the loss column! -- and nine up on New York.

We consequently learned that, unlike the case for the last decade, the Yankees' world doesn't stop spinning when the Red Sox leave town. There is more to life in the East lane.

The Rays are coming to town, for games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi actually found himself saying very late Sunday night, "We've got two important games coming up, and we've got to make up ground."

We also learned that Johnny Damon hugs as well with his right arm as with his left. The disabled left fielder was the first one ejected from the dugout by the Brett Gardner walk-off single that gave New York a 5-4 victory in 10.

Damon gave his replacement a one-armed hug, with his left arm in a sling.

Another lesson: The Yankees are not yet out of magic, or of smoke and mirrors. For them to work a series split after the way they had been browbeaten in the first two games was tantamount to a guy going through rigor mortis one minute and break-dancing the next.

And that still wasn't the end of the lessons from this latest four-chapter installment of the Red Sox-Yankees epic, certainly the most analyzed and dissected beef in sports.

We also learned that too much is never enough of these teams, which explains why they decided to play a 37th inning.

And we most definitely learned that these two teams can still elevate each other's play, evidenced by the tension raised in the harrowing ninth inning of New York's 2-1 victory on Saturday and sustained for 205 minutes on Sunday.

Finally, we were reminded to honor the game's heritage.

Because, for all the sideshows and sidebars, it still comes down to the guys who trigger all the action. You are still only as good as the day's pitcher.

The Red Sox got a 2-0 jump in the set on the hard-nosed tenacity of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, against whom the Yankees had only one scoring inning out of 15.

The Yankees got in a blow Saturday on Mike Mussina's veteran wiles (and Mariano Rivera's audacious save).

And Sunday's finale predictably spiraled into the typical Boston-New York stare-down after both Joba Chamberlain and Tim Wakefield ran out of bullets and gas.

"This was a huge game for us," said Girardi, who saw most of it on ESPN after railing at some of plate umpire Laz Diaz's calls and being thumbed out in return.

How big? Rivera pocketed the victory by going two innings for only the second time in 13 months.

He sent the Red Sox home pondering the inconceivable: 14 consecutive one-run road losses.

"Definitely frustrating -- rather get blown out," Kevin Youkilis muttered. "We just have to do a better job finishing games. Now we have to move on, and regroup."

So the Red Sox, too, were looking ahead.

Of course, both they and the Yankees could merely be playing analog ball in the Rays' digital world.

Boston manager Terry Francona, a very recent sweep victim at Tropicana Field, could only flash a bemused smile when contemplating the kind of high-energy ball being played by his team's new quarry.

"The way they play is a manager's dream," Francona said. "It's more fun when everyone contributes. It's just a fun way to play."

"It's incredible the things we're doing here," rookie Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria messaged from the Trop.

The Rays will bring their incredible show here on Tuesday for the two-game set, which could find the Red Sox in the incredible position of rooting for the Yankees.

The Red Sox who will have the run of Yankee Stadium in next week's All-Star Game tried to make themselves at home prematurely, but were evicted halfway through the long weekend.

Gardner's persistent at-bat against Jonathan Papelbon was a reviving elixir for the Yankees, whose days of 27-outs-of-torture appear over. The names are the same and remain just as glossy on the baseball cards. But age and injuries have taken their toll.

Nine weeks after Jorge Posada landed on the disabled list for the first time in his long career, Damon just did likewise for the first time in his comparably lengthy and durable career. And Hideki Matsui finally surrendered to a painful right knee.

That's one-third of your meal-ticket lineup torn into confetti.

Like Samson with his hair shorn, the Yankees have lost too many calibers. They used to relentlessly pummel pitchers. One hit to them was like a swig to an alcoholic. They didn't know when to stop.

We mentioned Saturday in this space that New York was 37-1 when leading after the sixth inning. The flip-side of that impressive statistic is gory: It means the Yankees are 10-40 when entering the seventh tied or behind, condemnation of their ability to fight back.

Boston has more dimensions, which helps explain why the Red Sox have been able to better persevere with an absent David Ortiz and a gimpy Manny Ramirez. They can manufacture runs in a way the Yankees cannot.

But as Sunday's climactic events showed, the Red Sox may not have anything on the Yankees when it comes to spinning tall tales and sustaining dreams.

Witness .100-hitting Gardner's winner off Pap, minutes after Rivera sent a tied game to the home half of the 10th by blowing three straight called strikes past the pinch-hitting Ramirez.

"Manny hasn't been Manny-like," said Girardi.

Manny not being Manny is as odd as the Yankees looking to, not past, Tampa Bay. But, as we learned a while ago, this is the new AL East world, and welcome to it.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.