BOSTON — Aaron Boone has said for weeks that even when the Yankees have had their share of stumbles, he liked how the stretch run shaped up for his team.
He still does.
"It’s on us," Boone said after the Yankees completed a three-game sweep of the Rangers on Wednesday night. "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 trouble is, as the Yankees started a key three-game series Friday night against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, the two other teams in a photo-finish battle with them for the two available American League wild-card playoff spots could make the same claim.
The Yankees entered the day two games behind Boston for the top wild-card position and one game ahead of the Blue Jays (the Yankees and Red Sox were idle Thursday and Toronto took a damaging loss to the Twins). The Mariners came into Friday two games behind the Yankees.
"We know what’s at stake," Kyle Higashioka said.
The stakes, of course, are a playoff berth, something that seemed inevitable when the Yankees left spring training. It has not turned out that way — from the 6-11 start, to being just a .500 team (41-41) as late as July 4, to winning 35 of 46, to the 7-15 stretch after a 13-game winning streak, to the just-completed sweep of the Rangers that had them at 86-67 entering this series.
"We’re all very happy to have done what we needed to do [against the Rangers]," Higashioka said. "But we also know that we’ve still got several really important games ahead of us. We’re ready."
Those important games started Friday night against the Red Sox, and the Yankees indeed seemed ready. By the time the top of the third inning ended with the Yankees holding a 7-0 lead, Boston starter Nathan Eovaldi was out of the game, Giancarlo Stanton had four RBIs on a three-run homer and a run-scoring groundout, Aaron Judge had an RBI double and Gleyber Torres had an RBI single. First baseman Kyle Schwarber also handed Higashioka a gift RBI single when he backed off his two-out pop-up and let it drop.
On paper, the schedule is not to the Yankees’ advantage. Their final nine games are against Boston (88-65), Toronto (85-68) and Tampa Bay (94-59). After they’re done with the Yankees, the Red Sox have three games against the Orioles (49-104) and three against the Nationals (64-89). The Blue Jays, after their four-game set against the Twins (68-85), will play the Yankees and finish with three against the Orioles.
"In the years past, we've kind of already at this point kind [in September] knew where we're going to be," Judge said earlier in the week. "You kind of knew, ‘OK, we're going to be in the wild-card game, we're going to be at home during the wild-card game, we're going to be playing the Division Series at home.’ This year, it's a little different. We don't know what's going to happen. It's all kind of in our hands. That's where you want to be as a competitor and as a professional. You want to be holding the cards. You want to be out there controlling it. Go out there and have some fun and win some ballgames."
Boone has praised the Yankees’ "focus" over the last two months, through good stretches and bad.
"As far as our focus, I feel like we’re where we need to be," he said. "I felt that way even through some of the struggles we’ve had over the last couple of weeks. I feel like from a mindset, from a focus, from a preparation standpoint, the guys are where they need to be. It’s about us going out and cashing the checks now."