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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees have surprised even Red Sox with strong start

Aaron Judge of the Yankees celebrates his third-inning

Aaron Judge of the Yankees celebrates his third-inning grand slam against the Oakland Athletics at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, May 28, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

A year removed from baseball’s fiercest rivalry, Alex Rod riguez can be found these days smiling back at you on Instagram, either in the pool with his new paramour, J.Lo, or yukking it up in the Fox broadcast booth. His Red Sox adversary, David Ortiz, is hawking a line of Big Papi cigars and a new autobiography.

Two of the most polarizing figures from the Bronx-Boston 100-year war already feel to us as if they’ve been gone for decades. And as we look ahead to Boston’s three-game visit to Yankee Stadium that begins Tuesday night, this ancient rivalry finds itself in yet another transition phase, but with the same high stakes — an unanticipated battle for first place in the American League East.

The game, however, has changed. Rather than A-Rod vs. Papi or Jeter vs. Pedroia or Clemens vs. Pedro, the way these two clubs measure up now involves more of a competition between Brian Cashman and his Red Sox counterpart, Dave Dombrowski.

For all the praise heaped on the Red Sox for developing a talented young core, the rapid acceleration of the Yankees’ rebuilding process could overshadow them very soon, if Cashman’s crew hasn’t done so already.

Consider that the Red Sox, especially after the Chris Sale trade, were a favorite to win the division when this season began and the Yankees figured to be too busy mentoring their prospects to be a serious contender.

Here’s a reminder of what Sox manager John Farrell said Feb. 28 about the Yankees, which came off as a backhanded compliment: “There’s a growing list of young players. Maybe similar to where we were two or three years ago.”

In each of those seasons to which Farrell apparently was referring, the Red Sox failed to win 80 games. Heading into the series opener, the AL East-leading Yankees are 32-22 and are two games ahead of second-place Boston.

The reasons for that? Primarily Aaron Judge, a 25-year-old rookie whose offensive rampage (18 homers, 1.110 OPS) has eclipsed anyone currently wearing a Sox uniform, including Mookie Betts, last year’s MVP runner-up to Mike Trout.

To be fair to Farrell, the Yankees didn’t even give Judge the rightfield job until 72 hours before Opening Day, so we can understand if he slipped under Boston’s radar. But powered by Judge, the Yankees are among baseball’s leaders in most offensive categories, well in front of the Red Sox in runs per game (5.44 to 4.84), homers (84 to 53) and OPS (.794 to .751). That’s with the Yankees still waiting for Greg Bird to heal up and Gary Sanchez to return to his mashing form of a year ago.

As lopsided as those hitting numbers look, the matchup gets worse for Boston on the homegrown pitching front. Even with the head-scratching struggles of Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees have received a huge boost from two of their fast-maturing starters. Luis Severino, 23, is 4-2 with a 2.90 ERA and a 10.0 K/9 ratio through his first 11 starts. Jordan Montgomery, the 24-year-old lefty who has drawn comparisons with Andy Pettitte, appears to be improving each time he takes the mound. His six scoreless innings Saturday against the dangerous Blue Jays trimmed his ERA to a respectable 3.67 in 10 starts.

And should any of the current starters falter, the Yankees have Chance Adams waiting at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he has a 1.57 ERA to go with 27 strikeouts and seven walks in 23 innings.

The only homegrown pitcher in the Red Sox rotation had been Eduardo Rodriguez, 24, but he’s on the 10-day disabled list after injuring his knee while warming up for Thursday’s start. Boston does have two former Cy Young winners in Rick Porcello and David Price, along with Sale, but the Yankees’ rotation currently outranks them in ERA (4.13 to 4.27) and opponent OPS (.728 to .759).

It’s still early June, but the Baby Bombers have accomplished much more than just getting the Red Sox’s attention. And when asked about the Yankees this past weekend, Farrell sized them up a little differently this time. “I don’t think anyone sees this as a fluke,” he said.

Maybe not. But unfortunately for the Red Sox, way ahead of schedule.

New York Sports