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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Red Sox early clinch of AL East could wind up helping Yankees

The Yankees' Aaron Judge reacts at second base

The Yankees' Aaron Judge reacts at second base after an error by the Red Sox allowed two runs to score in the second inning at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Even with the AL East a foregone conclusion, the Yankees still have plenty of work left to do before the end of this month. There’s the wild-card berth to clinch, as well as making sure that do-or-die playoff game takes place in the Bronx.

Both are not done deals yet. But even as the division title slips away, the Red Sox wrapping things up early may not be the worst thing for their Bronx pals.

Sox manager Alex Cora said before Wednesday night’s game that he intends to protect his regulars down the stretch, and that means the Yankees aren’t likely to get Boston’s strongest during the season’s final weekend at Fenway Park. That series could still be very significant for the Yankees, who are trying to hold off the A’s for the top wild-card spot (the lead was 2 1/2 games entering Wednesday).

“The most important thing for us is to be ready for what’s next,” Cora said. “We’ve got to take care of our guys and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The Yankees have never appeared more vulnerable than during this month, and were only 8-10 in their last 18 games. They also have some tough sledding ahead, with four games against the giant-killer Rays (at the Trop) and four left with Boston.

The A’s obviously want the Red Sox to be playing at max effort, as do the surprising Rays, who are 31-13 since Aug. 1 and have closed to within four games of Oakland. But the Yankees’ ancient rival seems fine with doing them a late-September solid, as soon as the Sox nail down their third consecutive AL East title.

“Our goal is our goal,” said Cora, who offered no apologies. “This conversation always happens -- how they owe it to the other teams -- but it doesn’t work that way.”

While it seems advantageous for the Red Sox to push that wild-card game out to the Bay Area by beating up on the Yankees -- thus forcing one of the teams to fly 3,000 miles back east for Game 1 of the Division Series at Fenway -- Cora didn’t sound fixated on that scenario. He came off as somewhat contradictory to his stance only a day earlier, when he talked about how important it was for the Astros to push the Sox a year ago on the final weekend.

Cora was the bench coach for that Houston club, which arrived at Fenway with nothing at stake as far as playoff positioning. But with the Red Sox clinging to a three-game edge over the Yankees (and four to play), the Astros had an ulterior motive, namely to see if they could force Boston to use Chris Sale in Game No. 162, thus burning him for the Division Series opener against them.

As a result, Houston deployed their regular starting lineup in the first three games, until the last one was rendered meaningless -- and Sale was no longer in the mix. It was a sound strategy, and the Astros won the first two, keeping the Yankees alive in the divisional race. As soon as they dropped No. 161, however, the gambit was over.

This year, the Yankees’ singular focus is hosting the wild-card, and they control their own destiny in that regard. But these head-to-head matchups with the Red Sox will prove useful later in October as the Yankees would line up to face Boston in the Division Series. In the meantime, the Bronx braintrust has a number of questions to answer, primarily who to start in the wild-card game, followed by the overall roster composition for the playoffs.

The first two games of this Sox series are providing some useful insight. Andrew McCutchen has leapfrogged Brett Gardner in the outfield rotation, Neil Walker may be positioning himself as the first baseman against righthanded starters and some of the team’s key injuries are clearing up just in time for the September push. Consider these next 1 1/2 weeks a fact-finding mission on the way to the wild card.

“It better be,” Boone said. "You need to continue to grow in this game and you need to continue to always try to gather information and be able to evaluate and prepare for opponents but also evaluate ourselves. We're scouting ourselves right now, to see if there's things we're doing that we can do better, tendencies, those kinds of things.”

And if they get a little help from the Red Sox, that doesn’t hurt either.

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