BOSTON -- For the second weekend in a row, the Boston Red Sox were able to keep their closest pursuer in the race for the American League East crown safely at arm's length.
Now, they will take the measure of another formidable opponent.
By silencing Aaron Judge (again), getting to Sonny Gray for two early runs and pulling away in the late innings Sunday, the Red Sox scored a 5-1 victory over the New York Yankees at Fenway Park. It was the second consecutive weekend they took two of three games and emerged from a showdown with the Yanks having expanded their division lead by one game.
But there wasn't much time for revelry. After the game, the Sox jetted to Cleveland, where they will open a four-game series Monday night against the Indians. It will be their first visit in 10 months, since their promising 2016 season hit a considerable speed bump en route to a sweep in the American League Division Series.
And although the Red Sox faced the Indians -- and beat them in two of three games -- recently at Fenway, the return trip to Progressive Field will be an opportunity to prove they have learned from last October, a message that wouldn't be insignificant considering the teams appear to be on course for an ALDS rematch.
"I thought last year, getting into the postseason was an important steppingstone for this young group," manager John Farrell said. "We've added to that young group. We're in a stretch of games this month where the schedule is tough. Our guys are handling that challenge great right now, but we know we're going in to play a very good team in Cleveland."
Indeed, after an inconsistent first half of the season, the Indians have won 20 of their past 29 games to seize a five-game lead in the AL Central. In some ways, their season has paralleled that of the Red Sox, who have widened their division lead to five games over the Yankees by winning 14 of 17 games.
It turns out the Indians and Red Sox are exactly what we thought they were -- the best teams in their divisions and among the three best clubs in the league.
Both teams are led by their starting rotation and both have legitimate aces at the top. Corey Kluber is slated to start Wednesday night for Cleveland, one day before Boston's Chris Sale, although we can keep dreaming about a Kluber-Sale matchup in Game 1 of a division series. Both lineups are capable of putting together big innings, too. Last winter, the Indians signed free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion, and the Red Sox have gotten a jolt this summer from rookie third baseman Rafael Devers.
And although the Sox aren't interested in discussing it before they actually clinch the division title -- "We're not thinking about the playoffs or what transpired last year," Farrell insisted -- they do believe they are better suited for a deep postseason run now that Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and the rest of their talented young corps have gotten a taste of the playoffs.
"I would like to think so," Bradley said. "I think we can play better. We're always looking for ways to improve, and we've been on a pretty good run and glad to be winning."
The Yankees had back-to-back chances to cut into the AL East margin. But just like last weekend at Yankee Stadium, they were unable to win a series, even after they defeated Sale on Saturday night.
In his introduction to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, Gray slowed New York's momentum ... literally. He gave up only two runs in five innings, but worked at such a deliberate pace in dealing with several jams that the Yankees never seemed to get into the flow of the game.
And in a series that was more vital to the Yankees than the Red Sox, Judge went 1-for-12 with five strikeouts, extending his major-league record streak to 37 consecutive games with at least one whiff. He's 9-for-58 (.155) this season against the Red Sox, who have kept him from homering in 71 straight plate appearances. He also lazily tossed a ball in from left field Sunday, allowing Betts to alertly tag up and take third base.
With four games remaining between the teams on Labor Day weekend, the Red Sox are in complete control of the division, not that they're taking it for granted.
"We'd much rather be in this position than being five games back, that's for sure, but everybody knows there's a lot of baseball left to be played," said Red Sox right-hander Rick Porcello, who tossed six solid innings to win his fourth consecutive start. "Even heading into September, especially in this division, no lead is big enough. I've been on a team where we had a six-game lead going into September and it didn't work out."
Facing the Indians will make it easy for the Red Sox to keep their foot on the gas.