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Just a series of preparations

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 25, 2009

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NEW YORK - The Red Sox might very well watch the Yankees celebrate the American League East championship this weekend at Yankee Stadium, but can we all say in unison, “So what?’’

Clinching a playoff spot - which the Red Sox could do at Yankee Stadium, as well - is what it’s all about. Yes, there is honor in being divisional champs, especially for the Yankees, who missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years last fall. OK, we’ll give them that.

And they will have home-field advantage for at least the first round, which the Sox won’t have - and playing at Yankee Stadium is truly an advantage.

Yet the Red Sox won it all in 2004 from the wild-card position, winning six of their eight road games in the postseason. While they have not been a great road team this year, they haven’t been horrible. So let’s not overstate the home-field advantage.

So this weekend’s series might offer a couple of clubhouse parties, but will it offer much in the way of suspense or great baseball? Or conclusions, for that matter? Will we be talking about the so-called “psychological’’ messages if one team buries the other?

We probably will fall into the “assumption’’ trap. The Sox took care of the Angels at Fenway last week, so we’re thinking the Sox will be in the Angels’ heads in the playoffs, especially at Fenway. The Yankees, who have had trouble beating the Angels in the past, took two of three against the Halos this week at Edison Field. Does that mean the Angels are no longer in the Yankees’ heads?

While Yankee-Sox games are good for TV ratings, themes, and other things that may not necessarily matter when it comes to the playoffs, what’s important in this final lap of the season is that both teams get themselves in order. That could mean resting players, setting up rotations, or determining the 10th or 11th pitcher or 25th man on the roster.

The Yankees spotted the Sox the first eight games of this season series, and it didn’t mean anything (except that New York’s final record won’t be as good as it could have). It won’t prevent them from winning the division by a comfortable margin. Things have balanced out.

As they try to get their houses in order for the playoffs - and a possible meeting in the ALCS, five years after the epic 2004 series - there are some obvious areas the Yankees and Sox need to address:

YANKEES

1. A.J. Burnett has to come up big. He has to be every bit as good as Boston’s No. 2, Jon Lester, who may be six years younger than Burnett but has far more playoff experience and has won the deciding game of a World Series. Burnett lost himself for about seven starts (6.44 ERA), but in his last two he rediscovered his delivery and is now really dealing.

2. Joba Chamberlain will likely work out of the bullpen in the Division Series, and this is his chance to show that he’s ready to have the training wheels taken off and pitch with the big kids. The Yankees will need him as a fourth starter after the first round, but for now, they’re not saying where in the bullpen he’ll be used.

3. The Yankees, who expect to go with 10 pitchers in the first round, are hoping righthanded reliever David Robertson can return to form after missing nearly three weeks with a sore arm. Robertson, who has a great curveball, had taken on the seventh-inning role (61 strikeouts in 41 innings), and they hope he can do that again. They also have decisions on whether lefty Damaso Marte and righty Brian Bruney make the roster.

4. Who will make up the bench? If the MRI on Jerry Hairston’s wrist comes back positive, the Yankees will have lost one of their most versatile players. They would really like to get outfielder Freddy Guzman on the roster for one reason: He’s one of the fastest men in baseball. He could be used as a late-game pinch runner for a base-clogger like Hideki Matsui or one of the catchers.

5. How many catchers to carry? They love having the freedom to use Jorge Posada as a DH or Jose Molina behind the plate depending on matchups, so they want to be able to carry a third catcher. But Hairston’s status could change that thinking.

RED SOX

1. Manny Delcarmen remains the biggest question mark in the bullpen, and pitching coach John Farrell is committed to making sure he is turned around before the playoffs. Barring an injury, Delcarmen should be on the roster. Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Billy Wagner, Hideki Okajima, Ramon Ramirez, and Takashi Saito should also make it.

2. If we assume Josh Beckett, Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Daisuke Matsuzaka will start, and the Sox go with an 11-man pitching staff, another issue would be whether they need a long man. If so, Delcarmen could be in jeopardy and Tim Wakefield or Paul Byrd would have a chance.

3. How much will Jason Varitek catch in the postseason? Their best offensive lineup doesn’t include Varitek, but it’s hard to believe Varitek would not start at least one game, possibly two, in a five-game Division Series. It is interesting that Victor Martinez caught Beckett Wednesday night and the world didn’t end. The Angels are leaning toward starting John Lackey and Jered Weaver in Games 1 and 2 in Anaheim, with lefties Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders lined up for Fenway in Games 3 and 4. With lefties going, you’d want Mike Lowell in the lineup, which could reduce Varitek’s playing time at Fenway.

4. Like Yankees manager Joe Girardi, Terry Francona does a good job of giving players rest, so this means you could see more Casey Kotchman and Rocco Baldelli in this weekend’s series and less Kevin Youkilis and J.D. Drew. And a bit of rest for Jason Bay.

5. The bench is definitely going to be an issue. Will Nick Green’s bulging disk quiet down enough to put him on the roster or will they have to go with Chris Woodward in the first round? Joey Gathright off the bench, along with Baldelli, as the outfielders?

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

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