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The two-time defending World Series champion Yankees. "Unbelievable,"

By Tom WithersAssociated Press Published: May 22, 2000 12:00 AM

The two-time defending World Series champion Yankees.

"Unbelievable," he said. "I had to tell myself it wasn't the Yankees, even though it was."

Unbelievable, all right.

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Rigdon blanked the Yankees on two hits for seven innings in his first big league start Sunday, leading the Cleveland Indians to a 6-1 win over New York.

Rigdon, the first Indians pitcher since Luis Tiant in 1964 to make his first major league start against the Yankees, gave Cleveland just its second series win over New York at Jacobs Field.

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"This was better than I ever imagined," the 24-year-old Rigdon said. "Before the game I tried to visualize what I would do, but this was better."

Rigdon only arrived in Cleveland on Friday, promoted to the Indians one day after the club was forced to place three injured pitchers _ starters Jaret Wright and Charles Nagy and reliever Ricardo Rincon _ on the 15-day disabled list.

After settling in, Rigdon got the news from Indians manager Charlie Manuel that his first big-league assignment would come against the Yankees.

"I was nervous," he said. "But once I got out there and threw that first pitch to (Chuck) Knoblauch, I calmed down."

It was a strike and set the tone for Rigdon, who executed his gameplan to perfection.

Primarily using his sinkerball and slider, he stayed ahead in the count and kept the ball low in the strike zone. He used both sides of the plate and let his defense do the rest.

"The guys behind me are great players, so I just let them do their jobs," Rigdon said. "And anytime I got in trouble, I just remembered the guys that were behind me."

Rigdon threw strike one to 18 of 25 batters, and never went to a 2-0 count.

"He pitched wonderfully," New York manager Joe Torre said. "There's a lesson to be learned here by young pitchers _ throw strike one."

Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez hit two-run homers off Orlando Hernandez (4-4) and Enrique Wilson's inside-the-park shot helped the Indians take two of three from the Yankees, who swept a three-game series from Cleveland here earlier this month.

With his dad, Larry, mother Penny and fiancee Diane in town from Jacksonville, Fla., Rigdon walked four and struck out two. He gave up just a third-inning single to Chuck Knoblauch and a seventh-inning double to Jorge Posada.

And each time he walked to the dugout after the fourth inning, Rigdon got a standing ovation from the Jacobs Field crowd, many of whom probably didn't even know who Rigdon was 48 hours earlier.

"I got chills down my spine," said Rigdon. "To have 40,000 people on their feet cheering for you, I got goose bumps."

Following the game, everyone wanted to talk to the rookie about beating the Yankees.

Especially his father.

"It's awesome," Larry Rigdon said as he waited for his son in the Indians' clubhouse. "I was a little apprehensive about him facing the Yankees."

Rigdon, who got 14 outs on grounders, escaped a two-on jam in the seventh by getting Jim Leyritz to bounce into a double play.

"It's one of those things where you look at it as a big day for the kid," Leyritz said. "You say, 'Hey, this was your day today.' It was like someone was watching over him."

Hernandez lost his fourth straight decision and is winless since April 23. He gave up nine hits _ three homers _ and five earned runs in six-plus innings. Hernandez is 0-4 in five career regular-season starts against the Indians.

With Cleveland leading 1-0 in the second, Wilson hit a towering drive to right-center that backed O'Neill up to the wall. O'Neill just missed a leaping catch and fell into a heap on the warning track as the ball caromed toward the infield.

Wilson was waved home by third-base coach Jim Riggleman, and slid home safely when second baseman Knoblauch's relay throw to the plate was high.

"I was out of gas," said Wilson, who flopped across home. "I thought (Riggleman) would stop me, but he said keep running."

Thome's 11th homer of the season made it 4-0 in the third.

Ramirez connected for his 13th in the seventh to chase Hernandez, who has given up eight homers in his last four starts.

Notes: The Yankees, 25-11 at the Jake, hadn't lost two straight here in the same series since June 21-22, 1997. ... Thome is batting .461 with three homers in 13 at-bats against Hernandez. ... Tiant made his big league debut with the Indians on July 19, 1964, pitching a three-hit shutout in the second game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium to beat Whitey Ford. ... The Indians are the only AL team Hernandez has not beaten in the regular season. He shut Cleveland out for seven innings in Game 4 of the 1999 ALCS.

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