Yankees get final shot to gain on Sox

Yankees get final shot to gain on Sox

How far the Yankees have come. The last time baseball's greatest rivalry took center stage at Fenway Park, the only October plans hovering about players from the Bronx seemed to be golfing excursions, with New York on its way to its first missed postseason since 1994.

At the end of play on June 3, the Yankees filtered out with a victory in their back pocket but still far too few for their liking. New York left the Fens six games under .500 at 24-30, 12 1/2 games behind Boston and mired in fourth place in the American League East. A comeback of historic proportions would be necessary.

And, as it turned out, surprisingly plausible. With a memorable second-half charge that actually began weeks ahead of the All-Star break, the Yankees got back on track, shuffling much of their roster to welcome youth and in-season upgrades as they won 59 of their next 90 games leading into this weekend's tilt under September skies.

"Even though we wore the same uniform [earlier in the season], we're a different team," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "We've added several pieces, and the youngsters have made obviously more of an impact. We had absolutely no plans for any young pitchers to join us this year when we left Spring Training."

Sure, the Yankees are bringing their fair share of youth to the yard, and everyone is most curious about how Joba Chamberlain's high-octane fastball might fare in the afternoon shadows beneath the Citgo sign on Saturday afternoon.

But for most of this series, it'll be the rookies' chance to sit back and watch how the veterans tackle a frenzied series in Boston. Reliable lefty Andy Pettitte, AL Cy Young Award candidate Chien-Ming Wang and the anticipated Fenway Park return of Roger Clemens give New York more than a fighting chance.

The Red Sox have planned to ship out Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling, aiming to protect their 5 1/2-game advantage in the AL East and force the Yankees into thinking about alternate routes for October.

"It's not a time to pat ourselves on the back," Torre said. "But the fact that we're in a position now to decide our own destiny, I think, has been great. It's very satisfying that we've got into this routine of coming to work every day. It's really paying off for us."

It's a mission plan that the Yankees have yet to fully accept, preferring instead to keep their focus on Boston despite what were once overwhelming odds. Torre refers to the Red Sox as a "good-sized carrot," just as he spoke repeatedly of going 20 games over .500 -- something finally accomplished in Toronto.

Even Clemens, no stranger to either side of this rivalry, seems to predict that this weekend's tilt might not be the last time these clubs wrangle in 2007.

Yankees Coverage
Jeter's late homer lifts Yanks
Yanks gear up for lesser opponents
Chamberlain springs curve on Sox
Notes: Peace of mind for Posada

Red Sox Coverage
Schilling's gem ends with loss
Bauman: Game mirrors Classic duel
Sox don't take lead for granted
Notes: Matsuzaka pushed back
Season Series
Yankees win 10-8
• 9/16: Yankees 4, Red Sox 3
• 9/15: Red Sox 10,Yankees 1
• 9/14: Yankees 8, Red Sox 7
Previous season series
2006: Yankees 11, Red Sox 8
2005: Yankees 10, Red Sox 9
2004: Red Sox 11, Yankees 8

"Boston is a team that we're going to have to see, I think, more than these three games," Clemens said. "When you have two teams that are very good at what they do fighting for the same thing, it always makes for some excitement."

No one cried foul when the Devil Rays' bullpen faltered twice this week, but maybe Yankees players are just conditioned to see Red when they scoreboard-watch.

"We know we have something at stake going into Boston," said Johnny Damon. "We know we have to play well. We know we don't have a playoff spot yet, so we need to go out there and win as many games as possible. We have our rotation set up pretty good. Hopefully, they show up and pitch well -- there's a lot that can happen at Fenway Park. Hopefully it's good for us and not so good for them."

Pitching matchup
NYY: LHP Andy Pettitte (13-8, 3.78 ERA)
Pettitte has been the Yankees' most reliable starter in the second half, winning seven of his last eight starts. He is 15-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 26 career starts against Boston, and he owns the second-best winning percentage (.714) in the expansion era (1961-present) against the Red Sox, just behind Gaylord Perry's .815.

BOS: RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka (14-12, 4.44 ERA)
Matsuzaka has won two of his first three career starts against the Yankees, but it's not as though he hasn't struggled. His ERA over 19 1/3 innings against New York is an unsightly 6.98, having allowed 15 runs and 19 hits. He lost in an Aug. 28 start at Yankee Stadium, allowing five runs and six hits in 6 1/3 innings of a 5-3 New York victory.

Player to watch
Derek Jeter may be ailing now, but he's had past success against Matsuzaka. The Yankees' captain is batting .444 (4-for-9) with two home runs and three RBIs in his brief career experience against the right-hander.

On the Internet
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television

On radio
• WCBS, 92.7 WQBU (Español)

Up next
• Saturday: Yankees (Chien-Ming Wang, 18-6, 3.69) at Red Sox (Josh Beckett, 18-6, 3.27), 3:55 p.m. ET
• Sunday: Yankees (Roger Clemens, 6-6, 4.45) at Red Sox (Curt Schilling, 8-7, 3.93), 8:05 p.m. ET
• Monday: Orioles (TBD) at Yankees (Phil Hughes, 3-3, 4.91), 7:05 p.m. ET

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.