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Yankees hope to finish first half strong against rival Red Sox

Nick Swisher, right, watches his grand slam in

Nick Swisher, right, watches his grand slam in front of Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the seventh inning. (April 21, 2012) Credit: AP

BOSTON

Finish strong.

And in the process, perhaps bury a rival in the battle for the American League East title.

The Yankees arrived here late Wednesday night feeling good about themselves after Robinson Cano's two-run single saved them from a Rays sweep at a recent indoor house of horrors named Tropicana Field.

Now the Yankees have four games at Fenway Park against the Red Sox -- including a split doubleheader Saturday -- before the All-Star break. The Yankees (49-32) lead Boston (42-40) by 7 1/2 games.

"You want to be sprinting to end that first half. You want to finish strong, especially when you have division opponents,'' Nick Swisher said. "It's going to be a great series. They're throwing three lefties at us, [Josh] Beckett and three lefties, so it should be interesting. It's going to be a lot of fun. The place is going to be packed and we're going to be ready.''

Hiroki Kuroda starts Friday night and likely will be followed by Freddy Garcia Saturday afternoon, Phil Hughes Saturday night and Ivan Nova Sunday night.

"You just want to be playing well,'' Mark Teixeira said. "You don't want to go into the break on a losing streak, definitely. You want to win some games and feel good about taking a few days off.''

For the better part of the last decade, Yankees-Red Sox series have been mostly about battles for first place, but this year has been different. The division is stronger than it's ever been, with all five teams above .500, and Boston has never really challenged for first after getting off to a 12-19 start. "This is a crazy division,'' Joe Girardi said.

The Yankees lead Baltimore (44-38) by 51/2 games, the Rays (43-40) by seven and the Blue Jays (42-41) by eight. All three lost Thursday; like the Yankees, Boston was idle.

"They always have a good team,'' Cano said. "Always have good guys in the lineup. We'll have to play hard to win games.''

But the Red Sox have a decidedly different lineup.

Sure, there's still David Ortiz, who hit his 400th career home run Wednesday against the A's in Oakland. "I was so happy for him,'' Cano said.

But the lineup also features some new names such as outfielders Daniel Nava and Ryan Kalish and rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks. His performance (.298, 10 homers, 37 RBIs) helped grease the rails for Kevin Youkilis' departure to the White Sox (the veteran's lack of performance and issues with Bobby Valentine were factors, too).

Teixeira said seeing the Red Sox without Youkilis will be "weird.'' He used the same word to describe seeing him in a White Sox uniform last week at the Stadium.

Swisher agreed but said that in one sense, the names on the back of the jerseys are mostly irrelevant.

"I don't care who's on the field, man. It's the Red Sox, it don't matter,'' he said. "As long as it's on the front of their jersey, that's all that matters.''

Teixeira said it's the perfect way to close the season's first half. "Every Boston-Yankees series is fun,'' he said. "If you get a little tired because it's the middle of the summer, these wake you up a little bit.

"These series, the fans are so into it. It's like Game 7 of the World Series every game. It's a lot of fun.''

Although Teixeira said the games "don't count for anything more'' against the Red Sox and it can be argued, as of now, that games against the Orioles and Rays hold more importance, he said there's a bigger picture.

"What it means to the fans, what it means to both cities, that's never going to go away,'' he said. "Same thing in college football, Michigan-Ohio State or whatever rivalry it is. It means so much no matter what's going on. These games are so important to the fans. You feel the energy.''

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