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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees free to dream now that reality set in with loss to Red Sox

New York Yankees' Giancarlo Stanton watches his grand

New York Yankees' Giancarlo Stanton watches his grand slam off Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Heath Hembree during the fourth inning of a baseball game Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Photo Credit: AP/Julio Cortez

The Yankees effectively bowed out of the AL East race weeks ago. The deficit ultimately became too great to conquer. The Red Sox’s regular-season momentum could be slowed to some degree, as it temporarily was this week, but not stopped entirely.

Everyone knew a moment like Thursday was coming, and finally it did, showing up like an unwelcome guest in the Bronx. Maybe the Yankees deserve some credit for delaying the inevitable with a pair of inspired performances in the first two games, but the goal was to kick the Red Sox to Cleveland with the cases of unpopped champagne still stashed among their luggage.

That was not to be, and as a result, the Yankees now officially have failed to accomplish one of their primary preseason goals, which was to claim their first AL East title since 2012. Hard to believe it’s been that long, especially when you consider the Red Sox just won their third straight division crown and fourth in six years with Thursday’s decisive 11-6 victory in the series finale.

“This stings a little bit,” Aaron Boone said afterward. “But we also feel like we’ve got our guys back and we’re in a position to take off and really start playing well.”

For a while, it seemed like the Yankees might get the consolation prize of a Bronx sweep, which would have been a nice September bonus to fuel their stretch-run push for the top wild-card spot. Luke Voit went deep for the third time in two days, a two-run blast onto the netting above Monument Park, to give the Yankees a franchise record with 246 home runs. Giancarlo Stanton energized the largest crowd (47,351) to fill the Stadium this season with a go-ahead grand slam in the fourth inning that earned him a curtain call.

It was all happening again. The Yankees had rallied in Monday’s series opener, riding a three-run homer by Neil Walker for a comeback 3-2 victory. The following night, they bashed three more home runs off David Price in a 10-1 rout that seemed to send shockwaves through Red Sox Nation. Even if it wasn’t possible for the Yankees to derail the Sox completely, climbing inside their heads for a few days was some good psychological warfare with a potential Division Series showdown looming in another two weeks.

Boone & Co. just couldn’t stay there, and it was somewhat troubling that Masahiro Tanaka -- the presumptive wild-card starter -- was central to that failure. Before the game, Boone shrugged off any suggestion that Thursday was an “auditon” for Tanaka, but if that were the case, getting ripped for five runs over four innings certainly would have flunked him.

As for falling short in their pursuit of the AL East title, Tanaka took a more measured approach. You got the sense the Yankees had let go mentally of that quest a while back.

“Obviously it’s disappointing,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “Now that it’s done, I think we need to look forward. Kind of change our mindset and move forward.”

Sound advice. The Red Sox always represent a distraction, no matter where the two teams are in the standings, and meeting this late in September -- with Boston on the brink of clinching -- brought even more noise to the Bronx. At this stage, however, the Yankees had other things to worry about, namely fending off the A’s to retain home-field advantage for the wild-card playoff.

That’s not going to be easy. Over the last two days, the A’s scored 31 runs in a pair of wins over the Angels, so their cold spell apparently is over. The Yankees’ lead has dwindled back down to 1 1/2 games, but they do have the pathetic Orioles coming in this weekend. The challenging part will be those looming four games in Tampa Bay, and the upstart Rays -- who are still alive, if barely, for second wild-card spot -- would like nothing more than to mess with the Yankees’ postseason plans.

Late Thursday night, as the Red Sox hosed down each other with champagne in the visitors clubhouse, the Yankees didn’t seem too preoccupied with their rivals’ accomplishment. Stanton described both teams as “juggernauts” and suggested that it was Boston’s turn to celebrate now, with the Yankees’ chance coming later. It’s back to business in the Bronx. The goal now is to see the Red Sox again in the Division Series, with a very different outcome the next time around.

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