The 39-year-old left-hander rewarded New York just one day after being rescued from the scrap heap, pitching three-hit ball into the seventh inning on Sunday night to help the Yankees beat Boston 5-3 and pull within a half-game of the Red Sox in the AL East.
"It felt really good to be in that uniform, be in this place, against a really good team," said Leiter, who was originally drafted by the Yankees in 1984. "I knew I wasn't done."
With four starters on the disabled list and a thin trade market for pitchers, New York bought Leiter from the Florida Marlins -- and cheaply, too -- and halfheartedly put him in the rotation. He responded with a season-high eight strikeouts and three walks in 6 1/3 innings, allowing just one run in his first AL win since 1995.
"If there's any moment of my career that defined me, it was (pitching for) ... a team with its back against the wall," said Leiter, who pitched a no-hitter for Florida in 1996 and went 8 2/3 innings, throwing 141 pitches, for the Mets in the final game of the 2000 World Series.
"I like those moments. I like the nervous energy, that need for concentration."
Despite a two-run rally against reliever Tom Gordon and closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth, the Yankees won three out of four from Boston, earning their 10th win in 12 games to move a season-high eight games above .500. They have not been this close to first place since the first week of the season.
The Red Sox have lost five of six to whittle away what was a four-game lead in the division on July 6. Tim Wakefield (8-8) pitched his first complete game since 1998 and allowed just five hits, but they included two-run homers by Jorge Posada and Gary Sheffield and a solo shot by Alex Rodriguez.
"He gave up five hits -- three doubles and two home runs. That's a weird line," manager Terry Francona said. "He left some pitches over the plate and they hit them and they all accounted for runs."
Johnny Damon doubled in the eighth to extend his hitting streak to 29 games -- the longest in the majors since Albert Pujols went 30 games in 2003. Damon hit a long flyball that just eluded Sheffield's leap in right-center.
Gordon relieved Tanyon Sturtze and got Edgar Renteria and David Ortiz to pop up to the infield to end the eighth. Gordon gave up Manny Ramirez's homer and walked Kevin Millar to start the ninth before giving way to Rivera, who has saved 23 consecutive games since blowing his only two against Boston in the first week of the season.
Trot Nixon hit a potential double-play ball to second, but Robinson Cano threw the ball into left field. Pinch-hitter Jason Varitek singled in a run to make it 5-3, then Bill Mueller blooped a single into right field to load the bases.
Alex Cora followed with a sharp grounder to third to start a 5-2-3 double play, with the throw barely beating the batter at first. Damon grounded out to second to end the game.
Leiter was 3-7 with a 6.64 ERA in 17 games for the Marlins before they designated him for assignment last week. Desperate for pitching, the Yankees acquired him and most of the cash to pay the $2.8 million left on his 2005 contract.
"This was a move out of necessity," said general manager Brian Cashman, who went looking for another pitcher after losing 17-1 behind Triple-A callup Tim Redding on Friday. "I'm happy, not just for the Yankees but for him (Leiter). He wanted the opportunity to show everybody he still had some gas left in the tank."
Leiter was the 11th starter used by the Yankees this season -- most in the majors, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Leiter went 16 years, 82 days since his last Yankees start, on April 26, 1989. It's the longest gap for them since Babe Ruth went nine years, 107 days -- playing the outfield -- between starts for the team, according to Elias.
"I just had a difficult time accepting that was it," Leiter said of his time with the Marlins.
When Leiter walked Doug Mirabelli with one out in the seventh, manager Joe Torre came out to get him. The rest of the Yankees infield came to the mound to pat him on the back, and even the rival Red Sox fans applauded politely for his performance when he left the field.
Sturtze got Mueller to ground into a double play to end the inning.
- Red Sox closer Keith Foulke was expected to be examined by doctors on Monday to check his progress in recovering from knee surgery.
- Sheffield's homer, the 434th of his career, tied him with Juan Gonzalez for 32nd on baseball's all-time list. Rodriguez's homer, the 407th of his career, tied him with Duke Snider for 39th on the all-time list.
- Ramirez's homer was the 414th of his career, tying Darrell Evans for 37th on the all-time list.
- Leiter's previous win for Yankees was on April 14, 1989, when he started against Frank Viola at Yankee Stadium, threw 162 pitches and won with nine walks and 10 strikeouts. Twelve days earlier, he lost to Kansas City in a game that Gordon got the win.
- Boston 2B Mark Bellhorn jammed his thumb and left the game in the eighth.