NEW YORK (AP) – Boston arrived at Yankee Stadium with a September lead in the AL East for the first time in a decade, and Derek Jeter and Aaron Small promptly made it shrink.

Jeter turned in two great defensive plays and drove in the go-ahead run, and Small won his seventh straight decision to lead the New York Yankees over the Red Sox 8-4 Friday night in the opener of a big three-game series.

Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada homered off David Wells as New York overcame a 3-1 deficit and cut Boston’s division lead to three games with a little more than three weeks left in the season. New York remained a half-game back of Cleveland in the wild-card race.

Rodriguez, Posada and Jason Giambi had three hits apiece for the Yankees, who scored single runs in each of the first four innings, then chased Wells (12-7) during a four-run sixth.

Jeter threw out Jason Varitek at the plate with a relay in the third, singled in the fourth to put the Yankees ahead to stay at 4-3, then ranged into the hole at shortstop to get a forceout on Edgar Renteria’s grounder in the seventh and stymie a comeback attempt.

Boston tied a season high with four errors – by second baseman Tony Graffanino, center fielder Johnny Damon, shortstop Renteria and Varitek behind the plate.

Barely an afterthought when the Yankees left spring training, Small improved to 7-0 overall, including 5-0 in six starts as a fill-in. He allowed four runs and nine hits in 6 1-3 innings, becoming the first pitcher to win his first seven decisions with the Yankees since Doug Bird in 1980 and 81.

Small received a standing ovation when he came out of the game, tipping his cap to the sellout crowd of 55,024 as he walked to the dugout, waving to the fans, then tipping his hat again. He needed 61 pitches to get through the first three innings, then just 27 in the next three

Wells, 45-19 at Yankee Stadium during the regular season coming in, allowed six runs -five earned – and nine hits in 5 2-3 innings. Chad Bradford followed and allowed RBI singles to Bernie Williams and Rodriguez as the Yankees pulled away.

After finishing second to the Yankees in the AL East for seven straight years, a late-season division lead is an unaccustomed position for Boston.

“I hope we end up in first place. It’s not relevant yet,” manager Terry Francona said before the game. “It’s time to be a good team.”

New York manager Joe Torre acknowledged his team is running out of time to overtake the Red Sox.

“If we lose three games, we’re going to be in dire straits as far as catching up to win the division,” he said. “If we win three games, we’re still not going to be in first place.”

But following Boston’s unprecedented comeback from a 3-0 deficit against New York in last year’s playoffs and the first World Series title for the Red Sox since 1918, No. 2 has a familiar feel for the Yankees.

“Roles changed as of last championship series. They went into the World Series and we went home,” Torre said. “We can’t say it’s a new role for us because we’ve been chasing for almost a year now.”

New York got a first-inning run when Giambi hit a two-out infield single to Graffanino, who had been shifted into right field, and the second baseman’s throw skipped by Kevin Millar, who was just getting to the first-base bag, for an error that allowed Rodriguez to score from second. Instead of backing up on the play, Wells remained in the infield.

Boston took a 3-1 lead in the second on Damon’s sacrifice fly and an opposite-field drive by Renteria that bounced off the right-field wall and past Matt Lawton for a two-run double.

Posada homered leading off the bottom half, and Jeter came up big in the third. Varitek reached on a two-out walk and Millar doubled down the left-field line on an 0-2 pitch. Hideki Matsui made a high throw that Jeter caught with a jump, and he threw home in plenty of time for Posada to tag out Varitek, who knocked him over.

Rodriguez tied the score in the bottom half with an opposite-field, pop-fly homer to right, his fifth home run of the year against Boston and his eighth in 67 regular-season at-bats against Wells.

Jeter’s two-out RBI single put New York ahead in the fourth, and New York made it 8-3 in the sixth.

Posada reached on an infield single and scored as Damon let Robinson Cano’s single skip off his glove, and Renteria’s throw after Damon’s relay slipped out of the shortstop’s hand and bounced about 10 feet away. After the singles by Rodriguez and Williams, Giambi singled off reliever Mike Myers’ glove to drive in another run.

Boston got a run in the seventh when Cano misplayed Trot Nixon’s potential inning-ending double-play grounder for an error. With the bases loaded and Tom Gordon on the mound, Varitek followed with another grounder to Cano, who smoothly started a double play.

Mariano Rivera got three outs to end it.

Notes: Small did not allow a hit in 23 at-bats with runners on base before Manny Ramirez’s infield single in the first, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. … A fan on the first-base side was hit near the right eye by Damon’s broken bat in the seventh inning.

AP-ES-09-09-05 2256EDT


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