The regular season isn’t over, but the October drama at Yankee Stadium has already begun.
With another victory Wednesday night, the New York Yankees will enter the playoffs as AL East champions.
The Yankees can clinch their 12th division title in 15 years if they complete a three-game sweep of the Red Sox in the potential finale of the embattled Boston tenures for both manager Bobby Valentine and right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka
Hiroki Kuroda takes the ball opposite his Japanese countryman with New York (94-67) one game ahead of Baltimore through 161 contests. If the Yankees lose and the Orioles win at Tampa Bay, the teams would meet in a one-game playoff Thursday in Baltimore, with the loser of that game forced to put its season on the line Friday in a wild-card playoff.
New York would much prefer to go straight through to a division series with the AL’s best record, which it would also secure with a victory.
“If you win, you win the division. That’s the bottom line,” manager Joe Girardi said. “And we have the chance to have the best record, and that’s the bottom line and that’s a good feeling that you can control that.”
Raul Ibanez put the Yankees in position for those feats with a pair of timely hits Tuesday. He delivered a pinch-hit two-run homer in the ninth inning to tie the game, then gave New York a 4-3 win with an RBI single in the 12th.
“We stuck together. We stayed after them, and we were able to pull it out,” Ibanez said. “It’s crunch time for us, and we all know that.”
The Yankees have won nine of 10 at home, and they’ve taken four straight against Boston to improve to 12-5 in the season series.
There may not be a more fitting way for the Red Sox to finish their disastrous campaign than by watching their archrivals celebrate a division title.
Boston (69-92) is already assured of a last-place finish and its worst record since 1965, with many expecting the struggles to cost Valentine his job after only one season.
“We didn’t start the season to finish fifth … or fourth, or third, or second …,” said Valentine, who has one year left on his contract.
Matsuzaka’s six-year, $52 million deal - signed after the Red Sox paid a $51.1 million posting fee to bring him over from Japan - is due to expire, and he almost certainly won’t be back.
His first two years in Boston were promising, but the last four have been marred by injuries and woeful results. He’s 17-21 with a 5.42 ERA in 55 games since the start of 2009.
Matsuzaka (1-6, 7.68 ERA) seems an especially inviting adversary for the Yankees after going 0-3 with a 13.50 ERA in four September starts, with opponents batting .400. He hasn’t pitched since Sept. 19 and hasn’t faced the Yankees since 2010.
“It’s been really hard to keep the positive going, so far,” Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. “As always I’m disappointed in myself for not helping my team out.”
Kuroda (15-11, 3.34) turned out to be a much better acquisition for the Yankees, although he has not been at his best lately. Since his ERA dipped to 2.96 in August, the right-hander is 3-3 with a 4.73 ERA in seven starts.
He won Friday at Toronto but allowed 10 hits in 5 1-3 innings. He’s surrendered only 11 hits and three runs over 16 innings in two home starts against Boston this year.