New villains rev up Yankees-Red Sox rivalry

BOSTON -- For the second weekend in a row, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will square off in a three-game series. There’s always hype when the rivals get together, but considering they haven't occupied first and second place in the American League East this late in a season since 2011, this latest showdown carries even greater significance.

The Red Sox took two out of three last weekend and bolted the Bronx with a 5½-game edge in the division. The standings haven't changed much in the past four days, so the stakes are once again higher for the Yankees.

Though they can't overtake the Sox in the next three days at Fenway Park, the Yanks -- who just swept the Mets in the Subway Series and now sit four games behind Boston -- certainly can cut into the lead. Sweep, and they will effectively turn the AL East race into a six-week sprint to the finish line. Get swept -- or even drop two out of three again -- and they can probably focus on trying to win a wild-card berth.

But there's also plenty on the line for the front-running Red Sox, who can make life much easier down the stretch by creating more distance from their closest pursuer.

"Both teams are playing good," Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts said. "It's going to be a good series -- in our house, this time. Hopefully that will be to our advantage."

Here, then, is a closer look at why the second of three series in 24 days between the Sox and Yanks is worth our attention.

1. Chris Sale is becoming New York's latest sporting nemesis.

As much as the Red Sox have sought to maximize Sale's rest between starts to keep him fresh for September and beyond, they also jiggered their rotation to make sure he would face the Yankees in each of these series, including Saturday night at Fenway.

Do you blame them? Not only is Sale the leading candidate to win the Cy Young Award, he's also Yankee kryptonite. In 10 career starts against them, he has a 1.22 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 74 innings. That includes Sunday night's gem, when he allowed one run and struck out 12 batters in seven innings.

Pedro Martinez might have called the Yankees "my daddy," but Sale has been their master, reaching nearly the same level of torment as Reggie Miller against the Knicks, Chipper Jones against the Mets and Tom Brady against the Jets. And to hear Sale tell it, he has New Yorkers' attention.

"People in New York have never been really nice to me, but they hate me now," Sale said this week during a rare between-starts interview for the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund telethon. "I heard some pretty interesting things out in the bullpen last time warming up. I don't go to New York to make friends."

Spoken like a true Big Apple villain.

2. Aaron Judge has had a power outage against the Red Sox.

In his first career at-bat in Fenway Park, way back on April 26, Judge wrapped a homer around Pesky's Pole in right field. Since then, the Yankees' hulking rookie has gone 56 plate appearances without going deep against the Red Sox.

#AllRise? Not so much.

It seems the Red Sox recognized what the rest of the league has caught on to in the second half of the season. Judge is prone to chasing high fastballs, and according to ESPN Stats & Information research, 66 percent of the heaters he has seen from the Red Sox have been elevated.

The result: Last weekend, Judge was 1-for-10 with six strikeouts and three walks against the Sox. In a four-game series last month at Fenway, he was 1-for-18 with six strikeouts and three walks. In 12 games overall, he is 8-for-46 (.174) with 20 strikeouts, 10 walks and just the one home run.

The Yankees need Judge to weigh in this weekend.

3. Both bullpens can use some relief.

On Sunday, impressive Red Sox rookie Rafael Devers turned around a 102.8-mph fastball and launched it into the left-field bullpen for a game-tying homer in the top of the ninth inning.

And that was the least of Aroldis Chapman's problems.

In his past four appearances, the Yankees' closer has allowed four hits, including two home runs. He has walked four batters, hit one and thrown only 56 of 90 pitches for strikes. And his hamstring tightened up as he covered first base on the final out Tuesday night against the Mets. Add it all up, and there's too much uncertainty about Chapman, who is in the first season of a five-year, $86 million contract.

Craig Kimbrel has been lights-out in the ninth inning for Boston. But while the Yankees' setup crew of Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Adam Warren might represent their greatest strength, the Red Sox are still sorting through roles and responsibilities for Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree, Joe Kelly, Robby Scott and even recently acquired setup man Addison Reed, who wasn't happy when manager John Farrell pulled him from the ninth inning of a tie game Sunday in New York.

It could all make for some late-inning fireworks this weekend.

4. Can the runnin' Red Sox be slowed down by anyone but themselves?

Perhaps you've heard that the Sox have made more outs on the bases -- 66, to be exact -- than any other team in baseball.

Well, they won't apologize for their aggressiveness.

The Red Sox don't hit many home runs, so it seems they have taken a vow to push the envelope at all times on the bases. They're often overzealous, such as Friday night when Eduardo Nunez was thrown out trying to advance to third base on a sacrifice fly to strong-armed Yankees left fielder Aaron Hicks. Other times, their daring ways pay off, such as when Jackie Bradley Jr. scored the winning run all the way from first base on Mookie Betts' double off Fenway's left-field wall Wednesday night.

"It seems like everybody is saying we're too aggressive and guys are getting thrown out, but [there's] the risk-reward," Betts said. "You're going to run into some outs, but you're going to run into something like [Bradley's winning run]. It just shows you that there's a means to an end, and we're just going to be an aggressive baserunning team."

Hey, at least they're committed to their style of play.

5. Sonny Gray is about to matter in the AL East race.

There will be intrigue Saturday night when CC Sabathia returns to the mound after missing two starts with an inflamed right knee. But the bigger start will come Sunday when the Yankees hand the ball to Gray.

Gray has made three starts -- and pitched well in each -- since being acquired from the Oakland A's at the trade deadline. But while it's nice to finish six innings and allow two earned runs against Cleveland, Toronto and even the Mets, it has been a while since he has pitched in a game as meaningful as facing the Red Sox in the thick of a pennant race.

It's also precisely the situation for which the Yankees got Gray.

Gray has faced the Red Sox before, of course. Earlier this season, in fact, he gave up three runs in six innings of an 8-3 A's victory in Oakland. But his last visit to Fenway marked one of the worst starts of his career, a seven-run pounding on May 9, 2016.

With Masahiro Tanaka struggling through a tough season and now on the disabled list with a shoulder problem, Gray represents the closest thing the Yankees have to a veteran ace. In his first big test with his new team, he will need to pitch like it.