The Boston Red Sox have been chasing down the New York Yankees from afar for almost two months. Now, they’ll finally get a chance to do it up close as the bitter AL East rivals open a critical three-game series at Yankee Stadium.
“It’s the biggest series, probably in the world, in any sport,” Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield said. “We know what it’s all about - if you win, if you take care of your own business, you don’t have to worry about anybody else.”
The teams haven’t played since Boston took two of three from New York at Fenway Park from July 23-25. That series was highlighted by a memorable come-from-behind 11-10 Red Sox win that featured a bench-clearing incident sparked by catcher Jason Varitek shoving Alex Rodriguez in the face after he was hit by a pitch from Bronson Arroyo.
The incident and the dramatic win seemed to fuel the Red Sox, who have shaved a 10 1/2 -game deficit on Aug. 15 to just 3 1/2 games entering Friday’s series opener.
“It should be fun. We’re in a good spot,” Red Sox leadoff hitter Johnny Damon said. “We know they have to play well against us and we have to play well against them. We’re happy with the situation we’re in right now.”
Rodriguez, who was nearly traded to Boston this past offseason before getting dealt from Texas to New York, hasn’t taken long to pick up on the magnitude of baseball’s most storied rivalry.
“I think both teams have felt in some way that they were going to have to go through each other to get to the next level,” Rodriguez said. “Whether you’re up by 20 games or by four games, the bottom line is that you’re going to have to look each other in the eye and beat each other when it counts.”
New York has won the last six division titles, with Boston finishing second each time. The Yankees also beat the Red Sox in last year’s AL championship series, taking Game 7 on Aaron Boone’s walk-off homer in the bottom of the 11th inning.
But the Red Sox have clearly had the better of it in the head-to-head meetings this year, taking eight of the first 13, with three more big games at Fenway looming next weekend.
“I think most people would have taken a look at the schedule and the timing of the games and thought these games are going to be important,” Yankees team captain Derek Jeter said.
Arroyo will be back on the mound in the opener for the Red Sox, who are coming off Thursday’s 11-4 victory over Tampa Bay.
The Yankees, who took two of three at Kansas City before getting Thursday off, will counter with Orlando Hernandez. The Cuban right-hander came off the disabled list in July and hasn’t lost, going 8-0 over 12 starts, with the Yankees winning all but one of those games.
Though Boston has been the hotter team of late, Jeter doesn’t want anyone to forget his team is still the one on top of the division.
“They’ve played pretty well, but regardless of that we’ve still got a four-game lead,” Jeter said this week. “People have been paying a lot of attention to what they’ve done, but we haven’t been playing all that badly. They’ve just been playing extremely well.”
“This is a time you get to enjoy playing the game. It’s like a postseason atmosphere even before you get to the postseason,” Jeter said.