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The Bronx is breathing

Teetering on brink, Yanks rally from 3-0 down to force Game 4

New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano celebrates a go-ahead three-run home run by teammate Johnny Damon in the fifth inning of Game 3.
New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano celebrates a go-ahead three-run home run by teammate Johnny Damon in the fifth inning of Game 3.
Jim Mcisaac, Getty Images

NEW YORK — Dangerously close to getting swept, the New York Yankees woke up just in time to save their season and perhaps Joe Torre's job.

Johnny Damon lofted a go-ahead, three-run homer in the fifth inning, rookies Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain rescued Roger Clemens and the Yankees rallied past Cleveland 8-4 Sunday night, closing within 2-1 in their first-round AL playoff series.

"I don't think we're ready to see Roger Clemens' last steps off the mound, or Joe Torre's last game," Damon said. "We have a lot to play for."

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner blustered Saturday that Torre's run as manager was in jeopardy of ending after 12 seasons — all concluding with postseason appearances. "I don't think we'd take him back if we don't win this series," he told The Record of New Jersey.

And it looked grim for Torre and the Yankees when the Indians chased an injured Clemens in the third inning, building a 3-0 lead as Trot Nixon homered, and Ryan Garko and Jhonny Peralta drove in runs.

Damon had three hits, drove in four runs and started the comeback with an RBI single in the third off former-Yankee Jake Westbrook. New York, which hadn't gotten back-to-back hits in the series, then got three straight opposite-field hits from Hideki Matsui, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera for a run in the fifth.

Damon worked the count to 2-0 against Westbrook and hit the ball on a high arc to right. As it cleared the wall to put the Yankees ahead 5-3, Cano raised both hands in the air down the third-base line and jumped twice. Damon went into a trot, and the crowd of 56,358 leapt with him.

"We know what we have to do. We know who's the boss around here, and we know how much we love Joe Torre," Damon said. "We battled, we got some big hits, and a big pitching performance from Philip Hughes."

In a game that mirrored the Yankees' comeback from a 21-29 start, Cano added a bases-loaded RBI single in the sixth off Aaron Fultz. When a charging Nixon overran the ball in right field for an error, two more runs scored.

This time, there were no bugs to distract Chamberlain, who brought in his 100 mph heat. Bothered by swarms of flying insects at Cleveland in Game 2, he combined with Hughes and Mariano Rivera on 6 2-3 innings of one-run relief.

"This is a very uncomfortable time of year. It's an exciting time of year," Torre said. "You understand there's no safety net."

In an unprecedented year of the sweep, all other division series ended in three-game wipeouts. But the Indians, at least for a night, were denied their first trip to the AL championship series since 1998.

Paul Byrd tries to close it out Monday night for the Indians, with the Yankees starting Game 1 loser Chien-Ming Wang on three days' rest for the Yankees.

"I felt like we made a statement in Game 1, and I felt like they made a statement tonight," Byrd said.

Only four teams have overcome 2-0 deficits in the first round since the playoffs expanded in 1995. Before the game, Torre told his team to think about winning one game, not three.

"Tonight was unbelievable, the crowd behind me," Hughes said. "It was something I never experienced before."

With former New York City mayor and current presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani leading the cheering from his front-row seats, Alex Rodriguez stopped his postseason hitless streak at 18 at-bats with a second-inning single and also beat out an infield single. But he remained in a 6-for-54 (.111) playoff funk with no RBIs dating to his Game 4 home run against Boston three years ago.

New York, which led the major leagues in scoring with its highest total since 1937, pushed across just four runs — three on solo homers — in the first two games and batted .121.

While the Yankees got the leadoff man on in each of the first three innings, Derek Jeter bounced into double plays in the first and the third, and Jorge Posada hit into one in the second. Jeter also made a bad throw that led to the Indians' first run.

Clemens, in his 24th and maybe final season, tried to pitch with an injured hamstring that limited him to one start in the past month. He never looked comfortable, falling behind nine of 13 batters. By the time Torre went to the mound to remove him with no outs in the third, Cleveland had taken a 1-0 lead on Garko's RBI single in the first and Nixon's home run in the second, which appeared to glance off the top of the right-field wall.

Rodriguez came over to the mound and tapped the misfiring Rocket on his chest with his glove. Clemens, glove dangling from right hand, slowly walked to the dugout, down the steps and up the corridor to the clubhouse. It took him 59 pitches to get just seven outs.

New York, which overcame a 21-29 start to win the AL wild card, had turned to Clemens earlier this year, bringing the seven-time Cy Young Award winner out of retirement with a contract that paid him $17.4 million over the season's final four months. But at age 45, no amount of his famous will and determination could overcome his leg injury and balky elbow.

Torre and a trainer visited the mount with an 0-2 count to Travis Hafner in the third. Clemens walked him and went to a full count before striking out Victor Martinez. By then, Torre already was on the dugout steps, ready for the long walk to the mound.

Hughes entered in just the third relief appearance of his pro career, his second this week, and got the win. He retired Garko on a popup and gave up an opposite-field RBI to right by Peralta, one of just two hits he allowed in 3 2-3 innings. He struck out four before turning the ball to Chamberlain, who started sprinting to a bullpen mound to start warming up as soon as Peralta singled leading off the sixth and entered an inning later.

Nixon hit an RBI double in the eighth, but Chamberlain retired Casey Blake on a warning-track flyout with two on.

Notes: Jeter was 0-for-4 and is 1-for-12 (.083) in the series. ... Posada was 1-for-3 with a walk and is 1-for-10. ... Westbrook allowed six runs and nine hits in five-plus innings.