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No relaxing as Yanks head into Fenway

No relaxing as Yanks visit Fenway

BOSTON -- Some might believe that a healthy cushion in the American League East would remove some of the urgency for the Yankees from this weekend's showdown at Fenway Park, knowing no matter what, they will still leave town owning first place.

The assessment would be incorrect. The Yankees played with a message to deliver to the Red Sox the last time these two rivals met on a playing field, and coming off a four-game sweep, the objective remains to continue that pounding on Yawkey Way.

"You can't look at the standings," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "If you start looking at standings and what lead you may have, then I think that's when you lose the intensity level and you lose focus. We've got a lot of games left against all the teams that are behind us, so we need to keep winning games."

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History appears to be on the Yankees' side, as far as heading into October with a good head of steam and leaving the Red Sox scampering for the playoffs' back door. No Yankees club has ever blown a lead of more than six games in the division, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

But that provides little comfort, especially in a rivalry where the books seem to be rewritten at will. After all, it is still too fresh for the Yankees to have forgotten 2004, when a very different Bombers club watched the Red Sox become the first team to come back from a 3-0 deficit to win the American League Championship Series in an epic collapse.

No one is comparing a late-August series to the ALCS, but these games always do take on a higher profile. And after beginning the year 0-8 against Boston, the Yanks know the Red Sox always make for a difficult challenge.

Sox have lead, but Yanks have momentum
The Red Sox grabbed the first eight games from the Yankees in their season series, but the Bronx Bombers have won the past four in a row.
Date
Result
Winner
Loser
April 24BOS 5, NYY 4Ramirez (2-0)Marte (0-1)
April 25BOS 16, NYY 11Okajima (1-0)Albaladejo (1-1)
April 26BOS 4, NYY 1Masterson (2-0)Pettitte (2-1)
May 4BOS 6, NYY 4Lester (2-2)Hughes (1-1)
May 5BOS 7, NYY 3Beckett (3-2)Chamberlain (1-1)
June 9BOS 7, NYY 0Beckett (7-2)Burnett (4-3)
June 10BOS 6, NYY 5Wakefield (8-3)Wang (0-4)
June 11BOS 4, NYY 3Saito (1-0)Sabathia (5-4)
Aug. 6NYY 13, BOS 6Chamberlain (8-2)Smoltz (2-5)
Aug. 7NYY 2, BOS 0Coke (3-3)Tazawa (0-1)
Aug. 8NYY 5, BOS 0Sabathia (12-7)Buchholz (1-2)
Aug. 9NYY 5, BOS 2Coke (4-3)Bard (0-1)
Home team listed in bold.

"You play so many games within your division against teams that know what you're capable of doing," Johnny Damon said. "We still have six more against Boston and we know that. We know we have to try to get a couple of the series. If we do, it'll be very nice."

Luckily for the Yankees, they don't seem to be swimming in any of that negative karma. The team flew on a cross-country red-eye to Boston early Thursday having secured its Major League-leading 76th win, matching a season-high 31 games over .500 and improving to a big league-best 25-9 since the All-Star break.

"The one thing that I've been really proud about [with] this club is that there's a sense of urgency every night," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "This club knows how to continue to push, and that's a good feeling.

"That's the feeling that you want them to have -- don't worry about stuff down the road -- and our guys understand that. It's another big series going into Boston, because you've got a chance to do something special."

Perhaps that is made easier by the fact that the Yankees aren't trumpeting their cushion. Girardi said that he has not heard players discussing the division lead, and if that's what works, they'll need it.

The road doesn't get much smoother. Upon New York's return from the rare off-day, the Yankees will enter the red-brick walkways of Fenway staring at 23 of their final 41 games against winning teams within five games of a playoff spot.

"I think we know the opportunity that we have, so we don't want to let an opportunity slip away to win games and gain ground, and hopefully get to the promised land," Mark Teixeira said.

"We know Boston and Tampa Bay aren't going to lay down. These teams are going to win a lot of games, and I wouldn't be surprised if this thing comes down to the last week of the season."

The Yankees come into the New England weekend seeming to hold a pitching advantage in the series, leading up to a premier showdown between CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett under the lights on Sunday.

While the Red Sox have struggled to find a rotation that clicks, the Yankees boast a starting set that has gone 9-3 with a 2.46 ERA over the past 13 games.

"Pitching is the bottom line," Jeter said. "We really haven't scuffled scoring runs here for the last -- I don't even know how many years. The issue has been the pitching staff, and [now] each guy seems to be trying to outdo the other guy. That's a good thing, and that's the reason we've been playing well, bottom line."

Remaining games
Date
Site
Time
Probable pitchers
Aug. 21at Boston7:10 p.m.Penny (7-7) vs. Pettitte (9-6)
Aug. 22at Boston4:10 p.m.Tazawa (1-2) vs. Burnett (10-6)
Aug. 23at Boston8:05 p.m.Beckett (14-4) vs. Sabathia (14-7)
Sept. 25at New York7:05 p.m.TBA
Sept. 26at New York 1:05 p.m.TBA
Sept. 27at New York 1:05 p.m.TBA
All times ET.

It was July 21 when the Yankees finally surpassed the Red Sox for sole possession of first place in the AL East, a post they'll have enjoyed for 45 days this season -- and 31 straight -- when the two clubs take the field Friday.

"All [the media] wanted to talk about was a letdown, and I'm glad to say that we haven't let down since that series," Teixeira said. "We've been playing good baseball and throwing the ball great. Our offense hasn't really carried us, but we're scoring just enough runs."

But the Yankees couldn't fully enjoy their perch as long as the black cloud against Boston remained. The Yankees achieved that by sweeping a four-game series Aug. 6-9 at Yankee Stadium, New York's first such overpowering since 1985.

"I think it gave some guys a little bit of an easier feeling about our club," Girardi said. "They were having to answer those questions all the time, and now they don't have to answer them anymore. It was a great series for us, because we won all different types of games and played extremely well."

Next on the agenda has to be finally posting a victory against the backdrop of the Green Monster. Consider this: the last Yankees pitcher to win a game at Fenway Park was Mike Mussina, who celebrated his final big league victory with a fistful of McDonald's French fries last Sept. 28 in the tiny, cramped visiting clubhouse.

"There's nothing we can do about the games that we lost to them early in the season," Damon said. "We just need to focus on how well we're playing. We know that's a team that we can't make mistakes against. If you do, they know how to capitalize. Hopefully, we can be the aggressor and the team that plays well."

Teixeira stated the obvious in saying that the Yankees certainly don't want to go 0-for-Boston this season, but Girardi pushed the envelope further. Spirited by the four-game sweep earlier in the month, the Yankees are dreaming bigger than just one win.

"I think the real thing is wanting to win another series," Girardi said. "If we do that, obviously we're going to win a game. The big thing was the zero in front of our names. I think that was bigger."

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

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