NEW YORK (AP) – Randy Johnson was his old self, glaring and pointing. The Big Unit not only made it into the late innings, he pitched the New York Yankees into first place.

Johnson limited the Baltimore Orioles to three hits over eight innings in his first start since a second-inning ejection last week, and Matt Lawton broke out of a long slump with a two-run homer that carried the Yankees to a 2-1 victory Wednesday night.

New York, which won for the ninth time in 10 games, took over the AL East lead from Boston, which lost 7-4 at Tampa Bay. The Yankees had been in sole possession of first place for only two days this season: after an opening night win over the Red Sox and after a July 18 victory in Texas.

Just as New York closed out Baltimore, a roar went up in the Yankee Stadium crowd when the scoreboard showed that the Devil Rays had taken an eighth-inning lead against Boston. On Friday night at Toronto, Johnson was ejected in the second inning for repeatedly complaining about the calls of plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth. He didn’t get into it with Tuesday’s plate umpire, Larry Vanover, but did motion at first-base umpire Randy Marsh when he didn’t get a check-swing call.

Johnson (15-8) didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning and didn’t give up a run until the sixth, when Melvin Mora hit a long RBI double. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez helped the Big Unit out twice in the sixth, backhanding Bernie Castro’s grounder over the bag to hold him to a single, then sprawling on his knees to grab Javy Lopez’s two-out grounder to his glove side and throwing to first to end the inning with Mora on third. Johnson pointed at A-Rod as he came off the mound. The Big Unit made his most animated movement in the fourth, when Marsh ruled Miguel Tejada had checked his swing on a 2-2 pitch. The 6-foot-10 left-hander looked at first, put his hands together and slashed them across his body, indicating he thought the former AL MVP had swung. He walked Tejada, giving the Orioles their first runner, then retired Lopez on a flyout.

Johnson struck out six and walked one, improving to 4-0 in his last six starts. He also got help from first baseman Jason Giambi, who stretched prone in the fifth to glove a throw from shortstop Derek Jeter and complete an inning-ending double play.

Eric Byrnes had reached with on a one-out throwing error by Jeter – fans applauded when it was ruled an error that kept Baltimore hitless – and Chris Gomez singled cleanly to right before the double play. Giambi had a tight lower back and was replaced in the sixth by Tino Martinez.

After Johnson struck out Castro with a 96 mph fastball on his 119th and final pitch, Mariano Rivera came in and pitched the ninth for his 41st save in 45 chances.

With two on, Rivera struck out pinch-hitter Jay Gibbons and retired B.J. Surhoff, another pinch-hitter, on a soft liner to first to end it.

Lawton, acquired from the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 27, had been hitless in 19 at-bats, his longest slide in two years, and had not homered since Aug. 29. Hideki Matsui singled off Rodrigo Lopez (14-11) with one out in the second and Lawton hit a two-out drive just over the wall in right, his fifth hit in 42 at-bats with New York.

“His batting practice has been better,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said before the game. “Again, it’s so tough coming in here as late as he did and being thrown into the mix.”

Baltimore, which lost its fourth straight, learned before the game that All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts will need about six months to recover from injuries to his left arm sustained in a collision with the Yankees’ Bubba Crosby on Tuesday night.

Rodrigo Lopez gave up six hits in six innings.

Notes: The crowd of 50,382 boosted New York’s home attendance to more than 3.87 million. Barring rainouts, the Yankees will go over the 4 million mark for the first time when they play Toronto on Saturday. … New York was 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position.

AP-ES-09-21-05 2219EDT


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