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What can we learn when Yankees play the Red Sox?

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

What can we learn when the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox, in 2017?

To begin with, we can learn that both teams are in contention, and that supersedes most any other storyline happening around Major League Baseball. It’s almost an infamous thing, now, how the Sox/Yankees rivalry gets built up despite no actual person in the process — not the players, not the fans, not even the bloggers and the pundits — having the level of enmity for the person on the other side that’s required for an actual heartfelt hatewatch of a series.

That’s fine — or at least, it’s acceptable — because actual rivalries are few and far between, and are mostly the product of personal grudges and reaction during abnormal circumstance. They’re mostly started in the playoffs, and they end as quickly as it takes for one team to drop out of contention. Sometimes they pop up during the regular season as well, but if you’ve got a moderately long memory, you’ll recall that a couple months ago the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles absolutely hated each other, exchanging beanballs left and right. It was one of the more heated and, frankly, dangerous regular-season spats in recent memory.

And now it’s completely over. Following the early May series between the two teams, they took a month off from each other, and when they reconvened in early July each team was too concerned with the problems that had emerged in the intervening month from their own roster construction to care about what the other club was doing. They had an uneventful four-game set, and now, nearing the middle of July, no one talks about the O’s and Red Sox as rivals. The Red Sox are competing for a position in the postseason; the Orioles are spoilers and sellers. That’s how it goes.

So, the idea that the Yankees and Red Sox will walk into Friday night’s game with any real rivalry is a fake one, but everyone knows that already. The people who scheduled it knew it when they adjusted whatever spreadsheet MLB’s calendar computer spit out. The people working at NESN and YES who proposed the ads for the upcoming series knew it, too. The announcers know it, and will probably play it the same way they play most of these series: congenial familiarity with the other team, with an understanding that both clubs are in the same, elite tier now.

The players know it, because their only loyalty to the club is monetary, because baseball is a capitalist enterprise, and playing it is just a job. They’ve got friends on the other side. Why wouldn’t they? This, like every other Yankees/Red Sox series of the last ten years, will be a friendly match between equals. The Red Sox have the better pitching staff. The Yankees have the better lineup, buoyed by rookie slugger Aaron Judge, who will win Most Valuable Player in this league unless the bottom drops out of his pitch recognition. So it goes.

New York Yankees' Aaron Judge smiles after his last at bat after winning the MLB baseball All-Star Home Run Derby, Monday, July 10, 2017, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

That doesn’t mean they won’t play hard; they’ll play very hard. Teams always play very hard, as a rule. The Yankees are three and a half games in the hole to start the second half, and need at least a series win here to put them in a good position to build. It’s a four game series (the July 16th game is a makeup from earlier in the year), so a New York sweep would end with the Yankees in first place in the American League East heading into the trade deadline.

The Red Sox want to pull away from the pack. A sweep for them would not only leave the Yankees in a dire hole, but distance them from the Tampa Bay Rays. Both the Sox and the Rays have played more games than the Yankees so far this year; Boston went into the All-Star break having played 89 games, and Tampa Bay 90, to the Yankees’ 86. One of those missing New York games is a rainout with the Kansas City Royals that will be made up in September, but the other two are just vagaries of the schedule.

With slightly more of their season in the book, then, these games are accordingly slightly more important to the Red Sox than the Yankees. But it’s a close thing either way, and everyone still wants to win the games in front of them right now — it just makes things easier mathematically later. Just ask the Houston Astros.

It’s unlikely that either team will sweep. Boston might, because all their pitchers are well-rested and the series is being played at Fenway, but the smart money is on a split. Nothing’s ever solved in mid-July — that is a baseball truism that’ll last you longer than any rivalry can. But it is a four-game series between the top two teams in a division, and if one can land a decisive blow against the other — however unlikely that is — then they’ll have that many fewer doubts about being buyers at the trade deadline when it hits in a couple weeks.

The bad old days are back in the American League East, and of the three teams competing for the division crown, the Rays are on the outside looking in — both by organizational instinct and the sheer amount of money that they can bring to the table. There’s no real rivalry at work in Boston starting on Friday night, but there is something that motivates a bit better in the modern league climate: pure economics. And economics say that no matter what happens, both the Yankees and Red Sox will be buyers come July 31st.

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