Yanks start key series vs. scuffling Sox

Plenty at stake as scuffling Sox come to town

Last year, the Yankees won the American League East championship in Boston on the second-to-last day of the regular season.

About a month ago, as the Yankees traveled to Beantown with a 1 1/2-game lead in the division, it seemed like that scenario would play out once again.

Then came a five-game sweep of the Red Sox, and some would say the Yankees won the division then.

Now, in their first meeting since the sweep, the Yankees can literally finish it off.

The Yankees, who hold an 11 1/2-game lead in the American League East, can clinch the division if they win three of four games in the series. It's one of the only storylines in what now seems like a watered-down version of baseball's best rivalry.

"That's OK; we don't need drama all the time," Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon said. "There always seems to be drama with that series. Hopefully, it will just be good, hard-nosed baseball, and hopefully, we can win."

While the Yankees have been able to keep an eye on the playoffs ever since flying out of Boston, the Red Sox have gone in the completely opposite direction. The Bombers are 14-8 since then, while the Sox are 9-13. The Yankees have lost ground in the race only twice since.

"[The race] is normally a lot closer, but the heck with it," Damon said. "We went out and played well and we're still doing it."

The Red Sox, on the other hand, have a different outlook.

"It doesn't feel strange," said Boston starter Curt Schilling, who will not pitch in the series because of a strained lateral muscle. "Depressing, I guess, would be a better word for it, considering where we are and where they are."

A large part of the change is that as the Yankees have gotten healthier, the Red Sox have lost several key players to injuries, including designated hitter David Ortiz, catcher Jason Varitek, starter Jon Lester and closer Jonathon Papelbon.

"We started playing well, but I think their injuries were the reason they couldn't keep things going," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

While the Yankees typically spend a week answering questions about an upcoming Red Sox series, they hardly heard about it on its eve Thursday. Near the end of Torre's pregame talk, he was asked if this was the longest he had ever gone without talking about a Red Sox game the next day. Torre laughed and agreed.

Still, several Yankees said the series hasn't lost its excitement despite the gap in the standings and lack of pregame buzz.

"Any time you're playing Boston, the fans get into it," Derek Jeter said. "They make the atmosphere fun for us as players, and we still haven't accomplished anything."

That could change by the end of the weekend as the Yankees are playing some of their best baseball, while the Red Sox are still scuffling. New York has won a season-high six straight games and sends perhaps its top starter, Chien-Ming Wang, to the hill Friday.

Several Yankees said it doesn't matter who they clinch against, just as long as they do it. But if it does come against the rival Red Sox, manager Terry Francona is already prepared.

"You know what, whatever happens, you deal with it," Francona said. "However difficult it is, you try to deal with it and learn. I mean, remember when we got our [World Series] rings? Joe [Torre] had them in their dugout watching. Flip the coin a little bit and we have to be on the other side. I hope that we would have as much class as they showed."

Pitching matchup
BOS: RHP Josh Beckett (14-10, 5.09 ERA)
Beckett allowed nine earned runs in 5 2/3 innings in his last meeting with the Yankees on Aug. 19.

NYY: RHP Chien-Ming Wang (17-5, 3.60 ERA)
Wang was originally going to pitch Thursday, but was moved back a day because rain threatened to cut his start short. Wang has won nine of his past 10 decisions.

Player to watch
Damon was 10-for-23 with two home runs and eight RBIs in the Yankees' five-game sweep at Fenway Park.

On the Internet
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television

On radio
• WCBS-AM 880 (Español)

Up next
• Saturday, Game 1: Red Sox (RHP Julian Tavarez, 3-4, 4.74) at Yankees (RHP Jaret Wright, 10-7, 4.60), 1:20 p.m. ET
• Saturday, Game 2: Red Sox (RHP Kyle Snyder, 4-4, 6.54) at Yankees (LHP Randy Johnson, 17-10, 4.84), 8:05 p.m. ET
• Sunday: Red Sox (LHP Kason Gabbard, 1-3, 3.13) at Yankees (RHP Mike Mussina, 14-6, 3.59), 8:05 p.m. ET
• Monday: Yankees (RHP Cory Lidle, 11-10, 4.86) at Blue Jays (RHP A.J. Burnett, 8-7, 3.90), 7:07 p.m. ET

Ryan Mink is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.