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Yankees should be zeroed in

Jason Bay, getting congratulated by Mike Lowell, hadn’t homered since July 7 before hitting one against the Rays. Jason Bay, getting congratulated by Mike Lowell, hadn’t homered since July 7 before hitting one against the Rays. (Chris O’Meara/ Associated Press)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 6, 2009

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - It’s pretty amazing that the Yankees enter their four-game series tonight against the Red Sox with a 2 1/2-game lead in the American League East, considering they are 0-8 against Boston this season.

Just a little twist of luck and the Yankees would have a much more comfortable cushion. But Johnny Damon, ever the optimist, said he and the Yankees will take the only approach they can: “Try to win the first one and then try to build on that the next night.’’

With an opening matchup of John Smoltz vs. Joba Chamberlain, tonight might be a good time for the Yankees to take advantage. It seems to be a mismatch on paper, unless Smoltz transforms into the pitcher he thinks he’s going to be.

If that should happen, what a major shot in the arm it would be for the Sox. If it doesn’t, the Yankees will have a pretty good chance to start changing that lopsided record.

“I don’t care how we get there, as long as we get there,’’ said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. “Last year, we were 11-7 against Tampa Bay and they won the AL East and we went home and didn’t make the playoffs.

“The important thing is we get to the playoffs, because then everybody’s record goes to 0-0. I can’t explain the Boston thing. I don’t know that anyone can, but we have another opportunity coming up here and we hope we make the best of it.’’

The Yankees have built up some confidence since last facing the Sox June 9-11 in Fenway. They are 31-16 since June 11 and went from two games behind to 2 1/2 up. Chamberlain is 3-0 with a 0.83 ERA since the All-Star break.

The Yankee lineup touched Roy Halladay for three homers in beating him Tuesday, which certainly pumped up the team, but as Cashman pointed out, “It sounds great and it’s always good to win games against great pitchers, but it often happens that you do that and then you lose to a guy with a 7-something ERA.’’

Tonight they face a guy with a 7-something ERA.

This will be Smoltz’s biggest challenge, considering the short porch in right field and the .397 average he has allowed to lefthanded hitters. This also has to be one of his last opportunities to show the Sox he can make it back. These are the types of series they got him for.

For David Ortiz, playing in Yankee Stadium won’t be a pleasant experience. He’s the new steroid guy, and the Yankees have taken a beating from Red Sox fans the last few years for all of their steroid users. Now the shoe is on the other foot.

But Ortiz doesn’t seem fazed. He’s more concerned about continuing his good fortune against the Yankees, against whom he is hitting .321 with 2 homers and 8 RBIs this season.

Ortiz, who was held out of last night’s 6-4 loss to the Rays with Tampa Bay starting lefty David Price, said, “I’m not afraid to play. But I’m an employee. I follow orders.’’

Though many of his teammates try to say otherwise, Ortiz has always thought the games between Boston and New York are special.

“I don’t know, but the games between us and New York, they are different,’’ he said. “Our games against Tampa are turning the same way. You know that between New York and us there is a lot of history and it plays into every game.

“I’m not telling you that the other games that you play, you don’t put the same enthusiasm into it. But there’s a lot of adrenaline flowing around. The feeling is different.’’

This will be Victor Martinez’s first step into the rivalry.

“I’ve heard a lot about it,’’ said Martinez. “I know I’m going to be pretty excited to get into it. That’s what everybody tells me. I like that kind of thing.

“In Cleveland, we never really had a rival except for playing the teams in our division. When we played Cincinnati in the interleague, that was pretty intense. But they tell me I’ll never see anything like this.’’

“He’ll have no idea until he walks in,’’ said Ortiz. “He will know what’s up. You don’t have to play for the Red Sox to know that when you go to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, everyone’s kind of on top of you.’’

Nobody wants to play up the 8-0 outcome so far this year. The Yankees have risen since those failures and essentially have gotten their act together, while Boston has struggled at times with injuries to their pitching staff and uneven play.

“We’ve been doing great [against the Yankees],’’ said Ortiz, “but New York is playing really good. I don’t know what will happen next. Hopefully we win all 19 games. But they know how to figure things out. They’ve got great players and a great team.’’

The Red Sox, of course, have added Martinez since the trading deadline, while the Yankees mustered up only utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr. Phil Hughes has emerged as a terrific setup man for New York. There was some outcry in New York for Cashman to vie for Jarrod Washburn or another pitcher, but he elected to stand pat with Sergio Mitre as the fifth starter.

“I don’t think you’re ever completely satisfied with your roster,’’ Cashman said. “You’re always trying to make it better.’’

While at one time it was widely thought that Boston had a deeper starting rotation, now it appears the Yankees have the edge. They will throw Chamberlain, A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia, and Andy Pettitte in this series against Smoltz, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester.

This will go far in determining which rotation looks more like the formidable postseason staff needed to win a championship.

It’s now August, so the games mean more than they did in April or May or June.

The Yankees need to prove they can beat the Red Sox. The Red Sox have to avoid slipping farther back.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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