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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees better not look past Red Sox despite 7 1/2-game lead in AL East

Yankees manager Aaron Boone looks on from the

Yankees manager Aaron Boone looks on from the warning track at Yankee Stadium on Thursday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

For New Yorkers, there’s a way you’re supposed to feel when the Red Sox visit the Bronx. The simmering hatred from what used to be a lopsided rivalry has evolved to include a more wary, begrudging respect born of the Sox winning four World Series titles in the past 15 years.

Chasing them all of last season was annoying, followed by the Yankees’ October elimination, and then seeing the Red Sox celebrate with another Duck Boat parade.

That’s why it’s been so easy to revel in the clumsy start to Boston’s title defense. And given the Yankees’ surprising ability to build a 7 1/2-game lead over the Sox, with a seriously banged-up roster, it’s only natural for everyone to look past the defending champs as a looming threat.

If the Yankees can open up this big a cushion without Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius and Luis Severino, then what chance do the Sox possibly have when the B-list Bombers turn the Bronx back over to the A-team?

Don’t believe it.

Don’t buy into the temptation that this now three-game series (after Thursday’s rainout) merely exists for the Yankees to push their lead over the Red Sox to double-digits. Many of the questions posted to Aaron Boone before the canceled series opener had to do with the Yankees creating more space in the division, or even delivering a knockout blow.

Boone, of course, is never going to play along with that storyline. Even if their ancient rivals occupied the AL East basement, the response would be the same.

“I mean, we’re playing the Boston Red Sox,” Boone said. “We know how good they are over there. We know that we have to play really well. But you can’t win Sunday’s game today. You can’t win three games today. It’s do what we have to do today -- that’s our plan. That may sound like something on a billboard or whatever, but that’s how we approach it.”

Normally we’d dismiss Boone’s platitudes as the usual manager-speak. But don’t let those 7 1/2 games fool you. Or the Red Sox being 29-27 two months in. That’s not really who they are. This is virtually the same group that took the crown a year ago, and one that we expect to push this division race to down to the wire, jump-started by their recent revival.

The Red Sox are 23-14 since losing both games of their April series in the Bronx (compared with the Yankees’ 27-10) and have the second-best run differential (plus-75) in the majors over that span, behind only the Twins (plus-103). The Yankees are plus-59 since that meeting.

And over the Sox’s recent 18-10 surge, they lead MLB in runs scored per game (6.54), batting average (.282) and on-base percentage (.363). Boston also ranks second in OPS (.857) over that period. 

You recognize the names. Thursday’s scheduled lineup could have been lifted from the 108-win crew that hoisted the trophy last October at Chavez Ravine. At the top was Mookie Betts, who’s looking like his MVP self again, hitting .336/.445/.538 with 11 doubles, six homers and 32 runs scored over his last 36 games. Andrew Benintendi has struggled, but J.D. Martinez (.298, 11 HRs) and Xander Bogaerts (.293, 10 HRs) are every bit as dangerous we remember. That 2-8 start by the Sox feels like a long time ago, and can now be chalked up to the aberration that it was.

“I do feel that the first 11 games of the season was just a bad stretch,” Sox manager Alex Cora said Thursday. “We didn’t pitch well, we didn’t play good defense. That’s something that surprised me. We were slow actually the first part of the season and then little by little we started getting better and obviously we started pitching better.

“It was a big difference. We do feel like we can be better. And when you start looking at the numbers, we’re on top of every category, but it doesn’t feel like we’re there yet. We wanted to be somewhere else, of course, record-wise. But I think overall the last three, four [weeks], the last month, we’ve been playing consistent baseball.”

For it to continue, the Red Sox could use Friday’s starer Chris Sale to be the ace they just signed to that $145-million extension, and he’s rebounded huge this month, with a 2.23 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and 15.59 K/9 ratio over his five May starts. And despite dismissing Craig Kimbrel, Boston’s amoeba bullpen has been surprisingly competent, with Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Marcus Waldman and Brandon Workman a combined 12-2 with a 2.30 ERA and 12.1 K/9.

The Red Sox are back in the Bronx this weekend, and in the big picture, they aren’t going away. 

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