Yanks can clinch AL East against Sox
Chance to celebrate division title over rival at the Stadium
NEW YORK -- The master crafting of the Yankees' schedule has brought them back here to Yankee Stadium, where they play their best baseball, with a chance to celebrate something very special in front of their biggest rivals.
And while it's never been the Yankees' style to taunt opponents, securing their primary goal of locking up the American League East by taking care of business against the Red Sox could be satisfying in more ways than one.
"We're still trying to clinch," Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon said. "We also want to try to have that momentum going against them in the postseason, if we happen to meet them."
The Yankees declined to celebrate on Tuesday when they clinched a playoff berth, locking up their 14th trip to the playoffs in 15 years on an evening when they defeated the Angels for the first time at Angel Stadium this season.
Instead of champagne, players shook hands and exchanged congratulations. The Yankees' eyes were fixed on the bigger prize -- the division, the goal that had been repeatedly drilled into players' minds from the first day that manager Joe Girardi barked his marching orders in Spring Training.
"Our goal coming into this season was always to win the AL East, and if we continue to play well, we've got a chance to do that," said Derek Jeter, who left Anaheim on Wednesday knowing that the magic number to clinch was five.
While Girardi said that he did not think there would be any significance in potentially wrapping up a playoff berth against the Red Sox, there is a benefit to playing tough teams on the schedule late in the season.
"I think playing these tough games is important this time of year," Girardi said. "It gives you an idea of what you're going to face as we move forward here in October. I think they are important games."
The Yankees would love to have opportunities to rest players going into what they hope will be a long month ahead, but it is a good litmus test to match up with teams like the Angels -- whom they defeated in a series in Anaheim for the first time since 2004, in what felt a lot like the postseason.
Now they draw the Red Sox, against whom they started the season winless in eight tries and have now secured wins in six of their last seven meetings, most recently going into Fenway Park and taking two out of three in August.
"I think when you look at the Red Sox and the Yankees, we're pretty familiar with each other," Girardi said. "We haven't seen Dice-K [Matsuzaka] this year, so that's interesting and we'll get a chance to see him. I think you can learn some things."
The Yankees know as a group that the Red Sox, like the Angels, are a club they might not just be done with yet.
"It's going to be fun. Every Red Sox series is fun, and there's still pressure on us because we want to continue to play well into the postseason," Mark Teixeira said. "We want to finish out the division title, so there's a lot on the line this week.
"Just like the [Angels] series, the Red Sox are a team that we might play in the playoffs. We want to play well and just kind of keep things rolling into the postseason."
The Yankees have not had an opportunity to spray bubbly since their clinching of the American League Wild Card in September 2007 at Tropicana Field, in Joe Torre's swan song as manager.
In Girardi's first season, New York won 89 games but disappointingly went home after the campaign, closing out Yankee Stadium with a dark October.
"It's almost like you're a kid and your parents don't let you go outside to play," Jeter said. "You're watching everybody outside the window because you're in trouble. That's what it felt like. Now you're off punishment and you can go back out there."
Despite the partial relief of knowing that they have at least punched an invitation to the dance, Girardi said that the Yankees still have one very important objective to accomplish, holding off the Angels -- and the Red Sox, presumably -- for home field advantage.
"I think it will be no different than ever," Girardi said. "I think there are three teams here that would all like to have the best record. I don't think it takes anything away from it."
With 97 victories entering play on Friday, the Yankees are within striking distance of their first 100-win season since 2004, the club that went up three games to none against the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series and couldn't bring it home.
Damon was on the other side then, the ringleader of a gang of "Idiots." Now having spent more time in pinstripes than wearing Red Sox crimson, Damon said that he is expecting the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium to be charged with even more electricity this weekend.
"It's always going to be amped up between these two teams," Damon said. "That's the best rivalry in sports. I got to be a part of it from both sides and [it's] my eighth year now. I didn't quite know about the rivalry when I joined it back in '02, but obviously, through the years, I've been informed very well."
Teixeira, a relative newcomer who has adapted quickly to the whole scene of being welcomed in New York and detested in Boston, said that he is looking forward to seeing what the Bronx faithful can muster to bring the series to a whole new level.
"I think we have the greatest fans in baseball, but they get extra excited for the Red Sox series," Teixeira said. "It's still the same game to us, between the lines. But you enjoy it for the fans, that's who we play for. And they really have fun."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.