The Red Sox's offense was on a rampage last weekend until it ran into Hiroki Kuroda. They had scored 54 runs over four games, including 34 in three wins over the Yankees, before Kuroda helped New York avoid a four-game sweep with six solid innings on Sunday.
The Yankees come to Fenway Park to open a three-game set on Friday, and this time, Kuroda will start the opener. He'll try to set the tone for a New York team in hot pursuit of an American League Wild Card berth.
The Red Sox, who will counter with John Lackey, have the AL East all but wrapped up with an 8 1/2-game lead over the Rays. But the chase for the second AL Wild Card spot is going strong, with the Yankees beating the Orioles on Thursday to stay within one game of Tampa Bay. They sit a half-game ahead of the Indians and 1 1/2 ahead of the O's and Royals.
"We've been chasing for the whole year, basically," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "It's obviously become much more interesting the last three or four weeks as we've got guys back. It became a lot more interesting. You know, every day it has that feeling of a playoff game."
Beginning with the finale of the teams' last series, the Yankees have won four of five and crept closer to a playoff spot.
"I don't know that we wrote them off at all," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "As [Alfonso] Soriano has come to that team, as [Alex] Rodriguez has come back, their offense is a strong one. We saw it for four games. No lead was seemingly safe. I think they've done an awesome job to be in the position they're in given the number of games missed by their regular players.
"You respect the way they go about their work. Their pitching has been constant, and now they're scoring a lot of runs of late. And this weekend is going to be, as we've looked at every series throughout the course of the year, it's going to be challenging in and of itself. I think they'll be some excitement in and around the three games that we play. Any time we play them it's always a spectacle."
The Yankees will put their recent surge on the line against a club that has won 14 of its past 18 despite a loss on Thursday. They can hope for a repeat performance against Lackey (9-12, 3.48 ERA) after the veteran right-hander allowed a season-high seven runs over 5 2/3 innings against them last Saturday. On the other hand, Boston's offense still helped him pick up his second win in his past 10 starts.
Kuroda (11-10, 2.99 ERA) finally cooled those bats the following day, holding Boston to two runs on five hits, with two walks and six strikeouts. Despite not feeling at his best, the righty put an end to a four-start run in which he posted a 7.43 ERA and was hit for a .353 average.
While Kuroda can help the Yankees take down a longtime rival, their true enemies at the moment are the rest of the teams in the Wild Card mix. That means plenty of eyes will be on Fenway Park's out-of-town scoreboard.
"I've said it many times; it's impossible to ignore. You're going to see it," Girardi said. "Just like a game goes up and down, that scoreboard can go up and down, too. You see a team has a lead, then they blow the lead. I think everyone is in tune with it."
Yankees: Gardner suffers oblique injury
• Outfielder Brett Gardner has been one of the Yankees' most consistent performers this year, contributing at the plate, in the field and on the bases. Now he could be sidelined at a critical juncture of the season, adding to New York's season-long injury troubles.
Gardner left Thursday night's game in Baltimore with a strained left oblique after striking out looking in the first inning. He was replaced by Curtis Granderson in the bottom of the frame and will travel back to New York for an MRI.
• Girardi used Rodriguez at designated hitter for the second straight game on Thursday. Rodriguez had told Girardi in a text message earlier that day that his tight left hamstring felt "better."
Red Sox: A time for rest
Between their sizable division lead and a deep bench that includes the likes of Xander Bogaerts, Mike Carp, Jonny Gomes and David Ross, the Red Sox have the luxury of resting some starters down the stretch.
Bogaerts took Will Middlebrooks' place in the lineup on Thursday against the Rays, while Gomes got the nod so Shane Victorino could rest some nagging injuries.
"It starts with good players, and we're able to manage their playing time, because we have depth that we can go to and not have a huge drop-off in capability and performance," said Farrell. "That's the reason why, in September, we're trending up in terms of offensive performance. We've been able to keep guys fresh. In a day and age where the drugs are cleaned up, rest is that much more important, and depth of roster becomes that much more valuable."
• The Red Sox hold a 10-6 lead in the season series, although the teams have split six games at Fenway Park.
• Boston is starting its final homestand, with three games apiece against the Yankees, Orioles and Blue Jays.
• Kuroda has a 4.26 ERA in five starts against the Red Sox this season, while Lackey owns a 5.79 mark in three outings against the Yankees.