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Dan Shaughnessy

No dramatic event, just a mini-series

Looking back on it, Julio Lugo realizes he's gotten safely back to third on Dustin Pedroia's shot to the mound in the third. Looking back on it, Julio Lugo realizes he's gotten safely back to third on Dustin Pedroia's shot to the mound in the third. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

NEW YORK -- We are here, and the Bronx is not burning, and the only thing we know for sure is that this once "crucial" three-game series is all about the Yankees.

Fear not, gentle readers. The Red Sox have won the American League East. They are going to finish ahead of the Yankees. It's been a while. Think of it this way: If you were in the first grade the last time the Sox finished ahead of the Yankees (1995), then you have already graduated from high school.

There are 30 games to play and the Sox lead the Yankees by seven after last night's 5-3 loss to the Bronx Bombers. It's a bizarro season. The Sox are the secure team. It is the once-dominant Yanks who are scrambling, scuffling for a wild card, spitting up pieces of their broken luck.

"It's all about what you do, not about what other people do," Yankee manager Joe Torre said.

"I feel real good about our team's chances," said Johnny Damon (remember him?), who hit the game-winning home run. "I don't think it matters how you get there, just get in."

The Sox are in. They have a chance to bury the Yanks, and New York scribes are trying to get Terry Francona to admit he's already thinking about his playoff rotation. The skipper won't bite.

"If I did what you guys do for a living, I'd be asking the same questions," said Tito.

"But it doesn't do any good to think about what might happen down the road."

Francona hates it here. He loathes the interview room down the corridor from the Sox clubhouse. His pet peeve is cellphones going off in the middle of media sessions, and it happens here more than anywhere else. He was in an especially good mood before last night's game and made a joke when the first cellphone interrupted his pregame press conference. Let's see how he's doing by the end of the set tomorrow.

Even though the drama has been sucked out of the series, there's still plenty to watch. Sox fans would be wise to abstain from mocking the Yankees -- which is tempting because when the Yanks are bad, they are Superbad (in their last 19 games, they have lost by scores of 15-4, 12-0, 18-9, and 16-0).

Chest-thumping BoSox Nationals need to be mindful that the Yankees could still make the playoffs and emerge as an AL Championship Series opponent. The New Yorkers have a cake schedule after this week and last night they reminded us that Damon lives while giving Boston its first look at Joba (no relation to Wilt, Wes, or Neville) Chamberlain, who has yet to surrender a run in eight big league outings. Let's not forget that the 2004 Red Sox finished behind the Yankees but managed to do some postseason damage, at New York's expense.

That's why this matchup remains fascinating. With a bad moon risin' beyond the right-field facade, Daisuke Matsuzaka hit Alex Rodriguez with a first pitch in the first inning. There were already two runners aboard, so it's hard to believe Dice-K was throwing at A-Rod, but it's the type of pitch that normally generates response.

In recent years, while the Yanks have reigned in the standings, Sox pitchers have used New York hitters for target practice without fear of retribution (70 Yankee batsmen hit to 49 Sox since the Pedro era began in 1998). This could change tonight with Roger Clemens on the mound.

Ah, yes, Clemens, the man who won 192 games in a Red Sox uniform. The last time Clemens pitched against the Red Sox was the seventh game of the 2003 ALCS. He was routed (homers by Trot Nixon and Kevin Millar) and mercifully lifted in the fourth inning with the Yanks trailing, 4-0. For an hour or so, we thought it was going to be his last appearance in the major leagues. Then a few things happened. A lot of things, actually.

On the hill for the Sox tonight is Josh Beckett, a Texan who grew up worshiping at the altar of the Rocket. Beckett enjoyed his finest major league hour in this ballpark, copping the World Series MVP award with a complete-game clincher in 2003, but he has never matched up against Clemens. Perhaps he'll feel the way Clemens felt the first time he started opposite Nolan Ryan.

The only way tonight's matchup could be any better is if Curt Schilling were on the mound for Boston. Alas, the Big Blowhard -- who boldly announced that he's auditioning for the Devil Rays -- doesn't get the ball until tomorrow afternoon. Schill, you remember, was the guy who said, "We don't need him," when Clemens signed again with the Yankees.

Schill turned out to be right, of course, but he'll have other things on his mind when he takes the ball against New York. He needs to jack up his value between now and the end of the season and thus far has been unconvincing as a righthanded version of an aging Frank Tanana trying to fool hitters he once overpowered.

Which goes to the issue of that playoff rotation Francona doesn't want to discuss. Schilling is one of the great postseason pitchers in baseball history, but on merit he would now rank as the No. 4 man in the Sox stable. Beckett is everybody's No. 1 and Matsuzaka has to be at the top of the postseason rotation even though he is only 13-11. Then there's Tim Wakefield, who is merely tied for the major league lead in wins.

So there you have it. The Sox have shredded the field in the AL East, and a couple of losses here will not change that. The series means little to Boston and a lot to the Yankees, but still we watch because it's never really over with these two.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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