Still plenty on the line for Sox-Yankees

BOSTON -- It never gets old.

Despite all the talk about the length of their games, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports.

The clubs are set to play their second-to-last series of the 2011 season, beginning Tuesday at Fenway Park. The teams also will meet the final weekend of the season (Sept. 23-25) in New York.

The Red Sox hold a 10-2 record against the Yankees this season, but as usual, both clubs are neck and neck as they battle for AL East supremacy with only one month remaining this season.

"When we play them, it's 0-0," Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "You can't look too much into that. We've got to play the best possible game we can play. It's a division rival and we have to go out there and win and try to gap the lead a little bit. We don't look at that and say, 'All right, we've been winning a lot of games against these guys and we'll be OK.' They're a team that keeps battling and battling and never gives up. You've got to go out there and grind."

It's all but a lock that both teams will earn a postseason berth with one winning the division and the other earning the wild card. But both clubs want to win the AL East because a division title all but guarantees home-field advantage for the ALDS and ALCS.

"Being in that situation, you definitely want to win the division," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. "You want to get to the playoffs one way or another, but winning the division is pretty cool."

But don't think that either team is taking anything for granted.

The phrase "there's still a lot of baseball to be played" is muttered throughout baseball clubhouses anytime a manager or player is asked about the standings. Some teams already know that postseason baseball is not in the cards. For the Red Sox and Yankees, anything less than making the World Series seems unacceptable.

When asked about the likelihood of both clubs running away with a postseason berth, and whether this still feels like an important series, Ortiz quickly responded.

"Like the first day, man," Ortiz said. "It's good. I love this series."

Ortiz wasn't alone.

Ask any Red Sox player and you'll get the same response.

"No question, man. That's a no-brainer," Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "No question we've got a race going. It's nothing new. Both of us will go out and play one game at a time and let the season dictate itself."

Since 1995, the Yankees have missed the postseason only once (2008), and in that span they've won the World Series five times. The Red Sox have reached the playoffs in six of the past eight seasons, winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007. Boston missed the playoffs in 2006 and 2010.

"We all know going into spring training, that regardless of what we look like on paper, we're both going to be in it," said Red Sox ace Jon Lester, who is in line to start Game 3 of the series Thursday. "Tampa's obviously done real well this year, if they're in any other division they're fighting for first place. We know what's expected of us and we know what to expect from [New York]. We know it's going to be a dogfight to the end. We've got two series left against them, so that's a lot of baseball against them."

Red Sox captain Jason Varitek has spent 15 seasons playing against the Yankees. He's experienced all that comes with these series. Of course, everyone remembers the veteran catcher giving the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez a face wash that began a bench-clearing brawl between the teams on July 24, 2004. That incident at Fenway Park completely changed the outlook on the season for the Red Sox.

That kind of intensity is always present. One reason the games take so long is because each team wants any sort of edge it can muster en route to victory.

"It always feels like a race," Varitek said. "Baseball has gotten so well rounded, as far as the teams you play. It was a dogfight winning three games in Kansas City. It doesn't matter who you play, the level of play has risen so much in the last eight years across the board. As soon as you get complacent, something happens. This team really survives when we pitch well, play good defense and find a way to score runs. If we don't do those first two things, we're in trouble."

Speaking of pitching, the Red Sox will send John Lackey, Josh Beckett and Lester to the mound against the Yankees, in that order.

"We've got a good team. We have a great pitching staff and we have three of our best guys going against them," Saltalamacchia said. "We're just going to go out there and continue doing what we've been doing."

Beyond winning the World Series, Varitek was asked on Saturday what sort of goals the team sets for itself during the season.

"The basic goals are win today and prepare to win tomorrow," Varitek said.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, that's actually not the case this weekend. Because Hurricane Irene forced the Sox to play a doubleheader Saturday against the Oakland Athletics, Boston has Sunday off along with a scheduled off day on Monday.

New York, on the other hand, had its scheduled doubleheader on Saturday against the Orioles in Baltimore postponed because of Irene and is slated to play three games in the next two days before coming to Boston.

Having two days off should benefit the Red Sox, especially given Boston's schedule of late, which has included 14 games in 12 days, eight of them on the road.

"We'll use it to our advantage, like we always try to do," Francona said. "We were really fortunate with the way it worked out [sweeping the doubleheader on Saturday]. We won. Now we can let our guys regroup, because they're going to need to. This has been a long haul."

It won't take much for the players on both teams to rejuvenate and get pumped for this week's series. After all, it is the Red Sox and the Yankees.

"It's always a great series," Ortiz said. "We always try to play to win. It's always good."

It never gets old.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.