Yanks dig Sox an 0-2 hole, 3-2; Knoblauch ties game with 2 out in seventh; O'Neill knocks him in; Cone 'was sensational'; Boston loads bases in eighth, gets nothing


NEW YORK -- Chalk it up to the "Curse of the Bambino" if you want, but the Boston Red Sox have their hands plenty full with the modern-day players who inhabit Yankee Stadium.

The Red Sox hung tough for two nights, but the defending world-champion New York Yankees had the last word each time, going up two games in the American League Championship Series with last night's 3-2 victory.

Name your unlikely hero.

Rusty right-hander David Cone delivered a gutsy seven-inning, seven-hit performance and matched his postseason high with nine strikeouts on the way to his seventh victory in 10 career postseason decisions.

Struggling second baseman Chuck Knoblauch delivered a clutch two-out double off Red Sox starter Ramon Martinez to tie the game in the seventh inning.

Injured right fielder Paul O'Neill, playing with a fractured rib, brought home the decisive run in the same inning with a looping single to left field.

And setup reliever Ramiro Mendoza pitched masterfully to shut down an eighth-inning rally that could have spoiled the whole evening.

The Red Sox were right there again. They loaded the bases with one out in the eighth and had the tying run on third in the ninth against closer Mariano Rivera, but the Yankees would not give in.

Rivera finally struck out former Oriole Damon Buford, and the Yankees were halfway to the World Series.

The Red Sox had hoped to get out of the Bronx with one victory and head back to Boston with a chance to take control of the series at Fenway Park. Instead, they went home down 0-2, just as they did in the Division Series against the Cleveland Indians.

"It's never easy 0-2," said Red Sox manager Jimy Williams, "but all we can do is play one game. All we can do is play the game on Saturday. Yes, we did go through it already, but maybe the way the game ended -- the way we came back -- maybe that's symbolic of the way we've done it all year. Can we do it again? I hope you all come to Boston and see."

What a pitching duel. Martinez had come back from rotator cuff surgery to help the Red Sox down the stretch, but no one could have expected him to be the go-to pitcher in the postseason.

Cone made national headlines when he pitched a perfect game in May, but his performance declined dramatically in the aftermath. He had gone winless in eight straight starts before defeating the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in his final start of the regular season.

Martinez made one start in the Division Series and pitched well against the Texas Rangers. Nobody knew what to expect from Cone. He had not thrown a competitive pitch since he faced the Devil Rays on Oct. 2, so there was some question whether he would be sharp enough to keep the Red Sox from rolling out the kind of thunder that carried them past the Cleveland Indians in the Division Series.

"David was sensational," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "He got into a groove much quicker than I thought he would after not pitching for 12 days."

The veteran right-hander struggled to find his rhythm in the first inning, but he held the Red Sox scoreless through the fourth and quickly dispelled concern about the 11-day layoff.

He had, after all, pitched much better during the regular season on five or more days rest (2.50 ERA) than on the normal four days (4.93).

"The extra rest has always worked to my advantage in the past," Cone said last night. "It's the opposite for some pitchers, but I felt strong. I felt sharp. It seemed like every inning they had runners on base. They are a hot team, so you really can't make a mistake to anyone."

Martinez may have been sharper from the outset, but blinked first and served up a long bases-empty home run to Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez in the bottom of the fourth.

The slim lead would not last long. Cone made a similar mistake in the top of the fifth and Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra yanked it into the left field bleachers with a runner aboard to give Boston the lead.

It apparently is going to be that kind of nip-and-tuck, tit-for-tat kind of series. Garciaparra has experienced the full spectrum of playoff experience during the first two games. He made two spectacular defensive plays in Game 1, but also made two errors and went hitless in four at-bats.

He did not make any highlight-reel plays last night, but his third home run of this postseason would have been enough to get the Red Sox out of Yankee Stadium with a split if Martinez and the tired Boston bullpen could have gotten through a few more innings.

The Yankees never go quietly. Martinez walked Ricky Ledee to lead off the bottom of the seventh and Torre played fundamental home-field baseball, ordering Scott Brosius to lay down a sacrifice bunt to push the tying run into scoring position.

One out later, Knoblauch lined a double into the left field corner to tie the game and O'Neill followed with a soft single off reliever Rheal Cormier to put the Yankees on top.

"Two great games. we're exhausted," said O'Neill. "It's pretty gut-wrenching. Pitching has been the name of the game for us, for both of us. Obviously, when you're up 2-0, you feel good about the team."

Playoffs today

NL Championship Series Game 3

Atlanta (Glavine 14-11) at New York (Leiter 13-12), 8: 12 p.m., chs. 11, 4 Pub Date: 10/15/99

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