With manager Joe Torre's job security on thin ice after principal owner George Steinbrenner mandated a playoff advance or else, chances looked bleak when Clemens was forced out after just 2 1/3 innings, aggravating a strained left hamstring and putting the rest of his postseason -- potentially his career -- in doubt.
But Hughes, who saw his debut season interrupted by a strained hamstring of his own, rose to the occasion. Making his second relief appearance of the series, Hughes scattered two hits and struck out four in 3 2/3 scoreless innings, providing the Yankees with valuable time to catch up against Indians starter Jake Westbrook.
"My job was really just to keep the damage to a minimum and try to keep us where we were at," Hughes said. "Hopefully we'd score a few runs, and we definitely did that tonight."
New York chipped away with a run in the third as Damon poked a run-scoring single to right, then opened up a pivotal frame to chase Westbrook, including the biggest blast -- Damon's three-run homer to right field, his second deep drive of the series and a shot that provided the Yankees with their first lead of the evening.
Summoned for a curtain call by the sellout crowd of 56,538, Damon made sure to savor the moment, moving a few steps in front of the Yankees dugout and saluting the fans. This, he said, was the kind of night that could rewrite the script to what already seemed -- after 2 1/2 games, pretty much -- finalized as an October flop.
"I think one win can really do a lot for us," Damon said. "We couldn't play tomorrow unless we won today, and it seemed like other guys started feeling a little more comfortable today. I think we're moving in the right direction."
After the game, Damon's teammates also lauded him in this, the final chapters of what has been an ultimately trying campaign for the 33-year-old, with a variety of injuries and early struggles that cost him his beloved center-field position.
Melky Cabrera may have the better legs and arm roaming the great expanses of the Bronx outfield. But Damon is still the guy the Yankees turn to for a spark.
"I've been saying for a long time that he's the best leadoff hitter in the last 10 years, in my opinion," said Alex Rodriguez. "He's amazing. The name is Johnny Damon, and he's very special. I'm glad he's on my team."
"He's an igniter on every team he's ever been on," said Doug Mientkiewicz. "He comes up with big hits because he doesn't let the situation he's in overwhelm him. That's why I've always said I'll live and die with Johnny Damon."
The support helped wipe clean any residual damage left by Cleveland's three runs off Clemens, who was pitching for the first time since Sept. 16 due to a variety of injuries. He may have thrown his final Major League fastball when he zipped a 92-mph offering past Victor Martinez, striking out the Cleveland catcher for the first out of the third inning.
In obvious discomfort and lacking sharpness, Clemens allowed a run in each of the first three frames, with Nixon homering for the second consecutive postseason game when facing Clemens, dating back to Game 7 of the 2003 AL Championship Series.
"With my stuff, I had every intention of getting out there for six, seven innings and just trying to keep them at bay and giving our guys a chance to score," Clemens said. "So that was disappointing."
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Ryan Garko connected for an RBI single to center in the first and Jhonny Peralta touched Hughes to score Travis Hafner with a run charged to the 45-year-old Clemens, who was lifted after a pair of mound visits from Torre and head trainer Gene Monahan. His status for the remainder of the postseason is unknown, but Torre said that he and general manager Brian Cashman have already started discussing how they could remove him from their roster for future games.
"He said he felt fine during the game," catcher Jorge Posada said. "Kenny Lofton tried to bunt, and [Clemens] pushed off and felt it grab. His hamstring wasn't 100 percent. It's just a matter of that it got worse."
A big error by Nixon in right field opened the door for the Yankees to run away with the game. With the bases loaded, Cano punched a single through the right side off Aaron Fultz that skipped past Nixon and rolled toward the wall as three Yankees runs scored easily.
That created a five-run cushion to be protected by rookie Joba Chamberlain -- who went two innings and allowed one run -- and Mariano Rivera, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning to cement at least one more home date on the Yankees' schedule. New York would never be happier to see Cleveland -- Lake Erie midges and all -- on its travel itinerary, something one more win could secure.
"Any club that's in the postseason certainly is capable of winning three games in a row," Torre said, "but we have to make sure that we still stay focused on what we need to do tomorrow."