Sure, Damon's vertical leap might still need a little work. But it wouldn't matter later, as Damon got just enough of a pitch to put the Yankees back on top.
One half-inning after Damon couldn't corral a home run ball in left field, the outfielder slugged a go-ahead two-run homer in the seventh, helping lift the Yankees to a 5-3 victory over the Red Sox on Tuesday night.
"He's had real good body language," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "Physically, he feels much better, and it's really showing up. He's all in this thing. He's pumped about playing every day."
The drive off Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, Damon's ninth of the season, helped back Andy Pettitte, who once again stepped up as the Bombers' stopper. The left-hander improved to 69-33 in games immediately following a Yankees loss, twirling seven innings of three-run, six-hit ball to win his sixth straight start.
The victory, the first meeting between Boston and New York since June 3, quickly washed away any bad taste left over from Monday's debacle at Detroit. In that game, starter Mike Mussina was lifted after three innings of an eventual 16-0 defeat, costing him his place in the rotation.
Watching from New York, Pettitte said the televised action was difficult to swallow.
"You want to set the tone again," Pettitte said. "That's really all I ever try to do, to go out and give us a good start to the game -- a good feel to the game. I want the guys to know that I'm going to be aggressive in the strike zone and hopefully we can feed off the energy of the crowd. I definitely felt like I needed to have a good outing."
Manny Ramirez cut into the Yankees' lead with his 20th home run, a solo shot leading off the second inning. Boston tied the game in the third when Julio Lugo tripled to left-center field and scored on a David Ortiz sacrifice fly, following a gritty 11-pitch at-bat by Kevin Youkilis.
A capsule of Pettitte's fire came in the fifth, when David Ortiz flailed at a third strike, one of Pettitte's six strikeouts against two walks. Losing grip of his bat and sending it helicoptering into the field-level seats behind the first-base dugout, Ortiz was retired. As he walked off the mound, Pettitte pumped his fist and shouted, "Come on!" to no one in particular.
Derek Jeter answered the call in the bottom half, clipping his ninth home run to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. The homer, a solo shot to right-center, was Jeter's first in 89 at-bats and the 192nd of his Yankees career, tying him with Tino Martinez for 13th place on the club's all-time list.
Pettitte carried the lead into the seventh inning, but Damon couldn't leap nearly high enough to keep it there. On a high Jason Varitek drive, Damon attempted to scale the left-field wall but came up just short of snagging the Boston catcher's home run, his 12th, which tied the game at 3.
Even so, Damon, who battled painful calf cramps and kidded that he had been "miserable" for much of the first half, couldn't be denied his renewed life.
"It's awful when you know that you can't go out there and do what everybody expects you to," Damon said. "Hopefully, everything happens for a reason. Coming down the stretch, I feel real good about our team's chances."
With regular left fielder Hideki Matsui hampered by injuries to both knees that will increase his use as a designated hitter, Damon has been cleared to patrol alongside youthful center fielder Melky Cabrera.
"I think the best indication is just being able to go out there and run," Damon said. "When I came into this league, that was always the given, that I would always be able to chase down fly balls. When you couldn't for the first three or four months of the season, you start to worry. But Joe did a great job of resting me and getting my legs under me. This is crunch time."
The Yankees touched Matsuzaka for two runs in the first inning. Damon opened the game with a single, and Bobby Abreu worked a one-out walk before Alex Rodriguez was drilled in the back by a fastball. Matsui bounced into a run-scoring fielder's choice, and Jorge Posada contributed an RBI double, giving New York an early lead.
Damon delivered the crushing blow against Matsuzaka, parking a seventh-inning offering down the right-field line, just barely fair. A walk later, Matsuzaka was gone, having allowed five runs in 6 1/3 innings and on his way to his first career loss against New York in three starts.
Offered a two-run lead and a chance to return home from a five-loss road trip in better form, the Yankees' bullpen made it hold, one night after different hurlers had surrendered 10 runs while mopping up after Mussina's shaky effort.
Rookie sensation Joba Chamberlain made it through his first Red Sox experience unscathed, allowing a walk and a single but challenging Boston hitters, striking out two. Afterward, Chamberlain remarked that he had most memorably come after Ortiz, who popped up to left field for the first out of Chamberlain's eighth Major League appearance.
"He looks bigger in the box than he does on TV," Chamberlain said. "I had to take a step back. But you've just got to attack the zone and trust your stuff and do what you've done so far."
In the ninth, a much more experienced face, Mariano Rivera, polished off the Red Sox in a 1-2-3 frame to record his 21st save. The victory, the Yankees' sixth in 13 games against Boston this season, closed New York to within seven games of the AL East leaders.
"I feel good about our team right now," Pettitte said. "I love the way the guys are swinging the bats, and if we continue to pitch well, we're going to be just fine."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less