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08/28/08 1:16 AM ET

Yanks point to Mussina in must win

Boston (77-55) at New York (70-62), Thursday, 1:05 p.m. ET

NEW YORK -- The Yankees looked at their series against the Red Sox as a chance to chip away at the standings, a chance to make a move.

After dropping the first two games of the three-game set, New York's concern has changed to defense mode as it trails the Red Sox by seven games in the American League Wild Card standings. Instead of climbing out of a hole, the Yankees need to make sure they don't dig one any deeper.

When the division rivals face off in the finale on Thursday afternoon, the final regular-season matchup between the two teams at Yankee Stadium, the Bombers will look to Mike Mussina to do something that New York starters have not been able to achieve in the first two games of the series -- complete five innings.

Mussina's start on Thursday will come exactly one year after he learned that he had lost his spot in the starting rotation, as the Yankees made their 2007 postseason push. The disappointment stuck with the veteran, and his one concern in Spring Training was to earn a slot in the rotation and keep it.

As the Yankees again find themselves fighting for a trip to the playoffs in late August, Mussina has not only kept his spot, he is the foundation piece of a New York pitching staff that has been shuffled and reworked all season because of injuries.

When he steps on the mound on Thursday, he will do it as New York's winningest pitcher of the season. Mussina surpassed his entire win total from the previous year when he picked up his 12th victory on July 18, and he kept up his fast pace, piling up 16 wins by mid-August.

"He's been a definite constant in our rotation, and it's great to have him out there," manager Joe Girardi said. "You wonder where we'd be without Moose this year. He's been so consistent in his games -- 16 wins -- and there's been games that he's pitched where he's probably deserved to win as well."

Mussina's success has played a key factor in keeping the Yankees in the hunt for the postseason, made surprising because it came after the 39-year-old righty posted a disappointing 11-10 record in 2007.

Farewell Yankee Stadium

The right-hander was forced to battle through leg injuries last year, and Girardi said Mussina's ability to stay healthy has led to his impressive achievements in 2008 that made for a dramatic turnaround.

"I know he was struggling last year," Girardi said. "I think because he's able to use his legs he's more consistent with his location, his velocity is better, and he's able to throw all of his pitches."

In his last start against Boston, Mussina silenced the Red Sox's offense, holding the dangerous lineup to just four hits and no runs through six innings. He has recorded just one walk in his three outings against the Boston batters, known for their patience at the plate.

But he will face off against a pitcher who has seen his own success against the Yankees. Left-hander Jon Lester not only has a 2-0 record against New York this season, but he also earned a complete-game shutout at Yankee Stadium on July 3 and gave up just two runs when the teams met again in Boston on July 27. Despite Lester's numbers against them, the Yankees are confident that their own starter will give them the boost they need to avoid a sweep.

"Having Moose should help. He's been one of our bright spots this season," Johnny Damon said. "The good thing is, every day we take the field we do have that energy. I think a lot of us are starting to look to [Thursday]. We know it's important."

Pitching matchup
NYY: RHP Mike Mussina (16-7, 3.45 ERA)
Mussina had his best outing of the season against Baltimore on Friday. Mussina tossed six innings, allowing just four runs. He finished with a no-decision, but he was happy with his performance. In a pivotal series with the Red Sox, the Yankees will be hoping that Mussina can display the same dominance he showed in his last start against Boston on July 5, when he threw six innings and allowed four hits and no earned runs in a 2-1 victory.

BOS: LHP Jon Lester (12-5, 3.49 ERA)
Lester was hammered by the Blue Jays on Saturday. The left-hander allowed seven runs on eight hits in just 2 1/3 innings, the shortest outing of his career as a starter. In addition, the seven runs he gave up tied a career high, which he set on Aug. 18, 2006, against the Yankees. Lester will look to rebound from the tough outing when he takes the mound at Yankee Stadium, in what could be Boston's final game at the historic venue. In three career starts against New York, Lester is 2-0 with a 4.12 ERA.

Right fielder Bobby Abreu walked in the first inning, and he has now reached base safely in 20 straight games at Yankee Stadium. ... Left fielder Xavier Nady connected on a single in the ninth inning to extend his hitting streak to nine games. ... Third baseman Alex Rodriguez is batting .360 with 39 RBIs in his last 37 games at Yankee Stadium. He hit two doubles on Wednesday night, and five of his last seven hits have been doubles.

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•  Gameday
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Up next
• Friday: Blue Jays (A.J. Burnett, 16-9, 4.58) at Yankees (Carl Pavano, 1-0, 5.40), 7:05 p.m. ET
• Saturday: Blue Jays (John Parrish, 1-0, 4.05) at Yankees (Darrell Rasner, 5-9, 5.03), 1:05 p.m. ET
• Sunday: Blue Jays (Roy Halladay, 16-9, 2.69) at Yankees (Andy Pettitte, 13-10, 4.37), 1:05 p.m. ET

Samantha Newman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.