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Yankees arrive in Boston for pivotal series with playoff berth at stake

Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws a pitch

Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws a pitch to the Orioles during the third inning of a game on Sept. 14 in Baltimore. Credit: AP/Julio Cortez

It’s a Code Red for the Yankees this weekend at Fenway Park — even though their ancient rivals will be wearing yellow for Friday night’s opener on Jersey Street, a nod to the "Red" Sox’s seven-game winning streak. And Boston’s baseball club apparently won’t be changing out of their banana/baby blue alternate uniforms (designed to honor the Marathon’s finish line) until after their next loss.

"I love them, I do," Chris Sale told reporters Wednesday night after the Sox swept the Mets. "I think you’re going to see them quite a bit more."

What the Yankees won’t see during this series is the repaired ace Sale, and their own No. 1, Gerrit Cole — who will start Friday night against Nathan Eovaldi — will have something to say about stuffing those yellow shirts back in storage for a while. Trailing the Red Sox by two games for the top spot in the wild-card race, Aaron Boone & Co. arrive at Fenway with the opportunity to flip positions by late Sunday night (weather permitting).

"It’s on us," Boone said Wednesday night after sweeping the Rangers. "It’s right in front of us. We go out and play well, we get to where we want to go. We don’t, we’re going home. So there’s some comfort in knowing that we don’t have to get help from anyone else, we don’t have to look to anyone else. It’s on us."

The Yankees (86-67) did get some help from Minnesota on Thursday night as the Twins beat the Blue Jays, 7-2. That dropped Toronto (85-68) one game behind the Yankees, who currently are in the second wild-card spot, and three games behind the Red Sox (88-65) with nine to play. The Yankees will face the Jays in Toronto after the Red Sox series.

When the Yankees and Red Sox last met in the Bronx on Aug. 17-18, the Yankees surprised the Sox with a different post-deadline look, relying on more athletic subs for missing regulars and showing more balance with newly acquired lefty slugger Joey Gallo (Anthony Rizzo was sidelined because of COVID-19 at the time). The result was a three-game sweep by the Yankees in the span of two days and Sox manager Alex Cora marveling at the makeover.

Fast-forward five weeks later, and the Yankees have limped along at nearly a .500 pace (17-15) while the Red Sox have surged (19-11) in regaining control of the wild-card race. This week, the Mets didn’t do their Bronx buddies any favors. They were barely a speed bump for the Sox, who outscored them 18-8 in what amounted to a two-win tuneup to prep for this AL East showdown.

Now it’s Cole’s turn to try to slow down a Sox offense that has led MLB in OPS (.839) and ranked second in runs scored (183) since that visit to Yankee Stadium. Also, Cole has something to prove. The $324 million ace is coming off one of his worst starts in pinstripes last Sunday, when Cleveland tagged him for seven earned runs in 5 2/3 innings and he was booed off the mound in his own building.

This year at Fenway, Cole is 0-2 with a 7.20 ERA in two starts, allowing 14 hits and four homers in 10 innings. Not a very encouraging stat line with so much at stake, and since he last pitched there on July 23, he’s 5-3 with a 3.86 ERA in eight starts. If there’s a playoff switch to be flipped, now’s the time for Cole to get in that mode.

"We’ve been playing against a lot of elite opponents in this division throughout the entire year," Cole said. "Sure we’ve lost some of the battles, but we still have the war ahead of us. I think we keep getting better ourselves and we keep learning from each of these battles, whether it’s a win or a loss. That puts us in the best position to win the war."

Cole was speaking more generally about the brutal road ahead, with the Yankees also having to travel to Toronto and then host the Rays (94-59) on the season’s final weekend.

The schedule certainly isn't in the Yankees' favor. After the Yankees series, the Red Sox will finish the regular season against the Orioles (49-104) and Nationals (64-89). After three more games against the Twins (68-85) and three against the Yankees, the Blue Jays will finish the regular season against the Orioles.

The Yankees lost their first seven games against the Red Sox but are 6-3 against them since then. Overall, they are 30-37 against their division foes, far inferior to the Rays (49-24), Red Sox (40-30) and Blue Jays (38-32). As damning as those numbers may be, especially the Yankees’ inexplicable 11-8 record against the Orioles, they’re mostly irrelevant now, as alluded to by Boone. This Fenway weekend doesn’t represent a fresh start for the Yankees, but it is an opportunity, and one they’re lucky to have based on such inconsistent performance.

For season-long underachievers Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez — two heroes from Wednesday night’s comeback win over Texas — these last nine games are a chance at redemption, and few will fixate on the previous 5 1/2 months if they come up big during this final playoff push. Beating the Red Sox at Fenway to do it? All the better.

"This is where you want to be as a competitor and as a professional — you want to be holding the cards," said Aaron Judge, who spent the last two games at DH because of being a little "banged up" recently.

The expectation is that Judge will return to rightfield Friday night for the usual hostility at Fenway, where a trying season for the Yankees will ramp up its degree of difficulty for the final 10 days.

SO WE MEET AGAIN

The Yankees swept the Red Sox in a three-game, two-day series in the Bronx that wrapped on Aug. 18. Here’s how the rivals have fared statistically since then (MLB rank during that span in parentheses):

Record

Yankees … 17-15

Red Sox … 19-11

OFFENSE

Batting average

Yankees ... .239 (20)

Red Sox ... .275 (2)

OPS

Yankees ... .762 (8)

Red Sox ... .839 (1)

Runs Scored

Yankees … 155 (9)

Red Sox … 183 (2)

Home Runs

Yankees … 60 (1)

Red Sox … 49 (4)

PITCHING

ERA

Yankees … 4.13 (15)

Red Sox … 4.11 (14)

K/9 innings

Yankees … 10.69 (2)

Red Sox … 9.47 (6)

WHIP

Yankees … 1.29 (18)

Red Sox … 1.36 (21)

Opponents' BA

Yankees ... .236 (10)

Red Sox ... .256 (22)

PITCHING MATCHUPS

FRIDAY

Gerrit Cole (15-8, 3.03 ERA)

vs.

Nathan Eovaldi (10-8, 3.58)

SATURDAY

Nestor Cortes Jr. (2-2, 2.79)

vs.

Nick Pivetta (9-7, 4.63)

SUNDAY

Jordan Montgomery (6-6, 3.55)

vs.

Eduardo Rodriguez (11-8, 4.97)

New York Sports