BOSTON -- Given the headlines generated by his card-playing superstar, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman might wince at the suggestion that he was wearing his best poker face this spring when he said that Theo Epstein's Boston Red Sox were better than his Bombers.
"I think they're the hunted and we're the hunter," Cashman famously said, alluding to how Epstein had bagged Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford in the offseason while he'd come up empty in his pursuit of Cliff Lee.
Well, call off the dogs, boys: On Friday night in the Fens, the Yankees bagged their prey, at least temporarily, with a 3-2 win that reconfigured the standings in the American League East for the first time in almost a month.
The Yankees, winners of eight in a row, are sole occupants of first place, their winning rally Friday jumpstarted by Alex Rodriguez's stand-in, Eduardo Nunez, who at a salary of $419,300 is paid less in a season than what the injured A-Rod ($31 million) makes in three days' time.
The Red Sox, who had beaten the Yankees in eight of their first nine encounters this season, dropped to second for the first time since July 7. And with CC Sabathia, the majors' first 16-game winner, pitching against the hang-on-to-your-hats John Lackey on Saturday night, the Sox will be hard-pressed to leap-frog the Bombers before the weekend is over.
Both teams have all but punched their tickets to the postseason tournament in October, given that the Los Angeles Angels began the night eight games in arrears in the wild-card chase. But if contesting the division title is an exercise in manufactured drama, it certainly didn't feel that way Friday night, especially in the fifth inning.
That's when Joe Girardi elected to lift his starter, Bartolo Colon, with the bases loaded and two out with the Sox already ahead, 2-0. Girardi brought in his only left-hander, Boone Logan, to face Boston's RBI machine, Adrian Gonzalez. Logan rewarded his manager by striking out Gonzalez on three pitches, Gonzalez feebly waving at the last one.
"They make a decision to go to Logan,'' Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "A pretty good decision. Their bullpen really stopped us.''
An inning later, with Nunez battling back from an 0-and-2 count to draw a leadoff walk from Jon Lester, the Yankees scored all of their runs. A bloop single by Curtis Granderson brought home the first one. A bases-loaded double-play tied the score. Nick Swisher's ground-ball double past a diving Kevin Youkilis gave the Yankees a lead they would never relinquish.
And for all the perceived chinks in the Yankees -- the graying of core pieces Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, the precarious health of A-Rod, the recycled resumes of starting pitchers Colon and Freddy Garcia -- there is little doubt where the iron in this Yankees team can be found. Before all the manufacturing jobs vanished, you might even be tempted to roll out the old U.S. Steel references when describing the Yankees' bullpen.
Logan registered the night's biggest out with his whiff of Gonzalez, who had been a tough out with the bases loaded this season -- .364 (4 for 11) with 10 RBIs.
"Last time when we faced him in New York, I got a pretty similar situation -- bases loaded -- but I worked the count and was able to get a walk,'' Gonzalez said.
"He usually attacks me with sinkers and sliders away, and so I wanted to see how he was going to attack me early. He went with a four-seamer down in the zone, just a good pitch at the knees. Then I just told myself to look fastball middle-away and he threw a good slider to put me 0-and-2 and I just tried to battle. He dropped down a little bit on me [for the third strike] and I just wasn't able to hold back."
But then the Yankees muscled up for the final three innings with David Robertson, Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera. Robertson and Soriano went 1-2-3 in the seventh and eighth, respectively. Rivera gave up a one-out infield hit to Carl Crawford, then set down Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Josh Reddick on called third strikes to end it.
Soriano led the American League in saves last season with 45 before electing to leave Tampa Bay and sign with the Yankees as Rivera's caddy (and potential successor). Rivera, 41, is one save shy of his 14th straight season with 30 or more saves, which would tie Trevor Hoffman's big-league record.
The revelation is Robertson, the Yankees' answer to Daniel Bard, who has not allowed a run on the road in 22 appearances this season and is averaging 14.01 strikeouts per nine innings.
"I think we both have really good bullpens,'' Bard said. "Their end-of-the-game guys are all right-handed, so it's similar that way. Lot of power arms on both sides.''
Bard did not know Logan was Girardi's only left-handed option in the pen (Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano are both on the 60-day disabled list), but admitted to mild surprise that Girardi elected to go to him in the fifth.
"It just shows you how much both teams need to win these games,'' Bard said. "I thought Colon was throwing the ball pretty well. He probably could have finished the inning. It showed you how much they wanted that win.''
The Sox lost despite a strong defensive effort. Carl Crawford made a diving catch in left. Catcher Saltalamacchia threw out two runners attempting to steal, and has now caught eight of the last 18 base-runners who have attempted to run on him. Right fielder Josh Reddick doubled off Andruw Jones at first with a throw on the run, and second baseman Dustin Pedroia turned a tough force despite being upended by Nunez, who slid late and hard.
If Pedroia thought there was anything wrong with the slide, he wasn't letting on.
"Who?'' he said, when Nunez's slide was brought up. "Slide into second? Which one? Was that last night?''
If Pedroia was annoyed by anything, it was that first-base umpire Mark Carlson ruled Gonzalez had lifted his foot off the first-base bag.
"He was out,'' Pedroia said. "It was Tom Emanski textbook, turning a double play. That's what that was. Textbook.''
There are more chapters to be written in this rivalry, of course, as Pedroia reminded one and all when asked about the Yankees vaulting past the Sox into first.
"We've got, like, 50-something games left,'' he said. "Win tomorrow, back in first. Yay.''
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.