A first-place team took the field to start the game at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night, and although that had once been a regular occurrence on September nights in the Bronx, the home fans finally enjoyed celebrating something unusual in the atypical 2005 season.
There was a buzz in a large, loud crowd savoring the Yankees' new status atop the American League East standings, but it turned to unease when the game entered the bottom of the sixth inning with the score tied. Would the Yankees' sole possession of first place be as fleeting as before? Twice this season, on April 3 and on July 18, the Yankees held first place for just one day.
Nine Yankees batters and several runs later, the Yankee Stadium stands, home to some of the most experienced front-runners in sports, were full of rejoicing fans again. After a long march to the top, the Yankees did not squander the chance to gain a meager foothold on first place, outlasting the Baltimore Orioles, 7-6, behind two home runs by Jorge Posada.
There was another reason to celebrate for Yankees fans. On Thursday, they welcomed back starter Mike Mussina, who had not pitched in more than three weeks because of an inflamed elbow. Mussina (13-8) was extraordinarily precise and commanding in earning the victory, giving up four hits, no walks and one unearned run in six strong innings.
"It was magnificent," Yankees manager Joe Torre said of Mussina's performance, which also included six strikeouts. "It was a sensational job."
The victory, earned despite some shaky relief work by Al Leiter, extended the Yankees' lead over the Boston Red Sox, who were idle Thursday, to one game. The Yankees swept the four-game series with Baltimore and have won 10 of their last 11 games.
With Mussina's return deemed pivotal to the Yankees' run to a postseason berth and beyond, his outing Thursday provided some extra resolve to an already confident Yankees clubhouse.
"He looked so relaxed and smooth," Posada said. "It seemed like he'd never left. It seemed like he was doing what he wanted to do, throwing the pitches he wanted to throw, most of the time."
Mussina, ever the perfectionist, agreed -- almost.
"I could get the fastball inside on people and the curveball came back," Mussina said. "The changeup was better than it had been in awhile. I had to learn whether I could do this or whether I could not. And if I didn't go out there soon, there wasn't going to any reason to go out there at all.
"So to that extent, I feel good. I feel like I can help the team."
When Mussina left the game after six innings, the score was tied, 1-1. But the Yankees' Robinson Cano began the bottom of the sixth with a scorching one-hop ground ball at Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada that bounced off Tejada's chest for an error.
Gary Sheffield added an opposite-field single and Hideki Matsui then laced a single to right field against Baltimore starter Bruce Chen (12-10), scoring Cano. Posada, who came into the game 3 for 12 in his career against Chen, then hit a 3-2 pitch into the left-field grandstand for his 19th home run of the season and a 5-1 Yankees lead. Posada had tied the score at 1-1 with a solo homer in the fifth inning.
The Yankees added two runs in the seventh inning when Cano tripled and scored on an infield groundout, and Sheffield hit his 30th home run of the season.