THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Playing well is Sox’ 1st priority

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / August 30, 2011

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The Red Sox have 29 games left in the regular season, including six vs. the Yankees. Three at Fenway Park, beginning at 7:10 tonight. And three at Yankee Stadium Sept. 23-25.

By then, the winner of the American League East and the AL wild card should be settled. And it appears a fait accompli that one of these rivals will win the division and the other will win the wild card.

“This is the time you start looking at the [score]board more, because you’re getting closer to the end,’’ said Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who admitted to doing so during a four-game series in Texas. He watched in awe last Thursday as the Yankees rallied from a 7-1 deficit to pummel the A’s, 22-9, on the strength of a major league-record three grand slams.

“Oh, it was ridiculous,’’ Ortiz said. “It’s something that you’re watching and you’re just like, ‘Damn!’ I think this is what makes people feel like they do about it and makes them want to come out and watch it.

“It’s like a playoff game.’’

Does it really matter who wins the division or the wild card?

“Both teams are trying to win the division, I mean, but we’ve got a long ways to go,’’ second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “It might not seem like it, but it’s a lot of games left.

“We’re just going to play as hard as we can to the end and see what happens.’’

Yet it would be a point of pride to win the AL East.

“If you gave me my choice I’d say I’d rather win the division because that means you came in first place,’’ said manager Terry Francona, who has taken the Sox to the playoffs five times during his tenure, once as a division champion and four times as a wild card. That includes 2005, when the Sox finished the regular season tied with the Yankees atop the AL East with 95-67 records, but wound up ceding the division to the Yankees by virtue of their better head-to-head record.

The Sox, who have won 10 of their first 12 meetings vs. the Yankees this season, have already clinched the tie-breaker.

“When you set out to compete you want to be the best,’’ Francona said. “Saying that, when you begin the playoffs, you have a day and a half to prepare and you don’t really sit around and think about your pride or your sense of accomplishment.

“You’re getting ready for the next team. So we probably don’t sit around and think about it. We’ve won coming from the wild card and we’ve lost. There’s advantages, obviously, to playing at home and things like that, but what’s more important is the team feeling good about themselves and being healthy.’’

But the importance of winning the division was not lost on anyone in the clubhouse.

“Shoot, since I’ve been here, the year we won the division, we won the World Series,’’ Pedroia pointed out.

When it was noted that the Sox also won the World Series in 2004 as a wild card, Pedroia replied, “I wasn’t here for that.’’

That was when the Sox completed one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, rallying from a three-game deficit to defeat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. They went on to sweep St. Louis in the World Series to snap an 86-year championship drought.

“It was before my time,’’ Pedroia said. “I mean, I know it’s important for us to play at home in front of our fans. It means a lot. It gives us a boost and puts pressure on the other team. Fans do a great job here of always getting our backs.

“So we want to win the division so we can have that opportunity.’’

“You got a lot of history between these two teams,’’ Ortiz said. “That is something that people always look forward to seeing and I guess that’s what makes it very interesting. Yeah, you want to win your division, get home field, definitely.’’

Does it still feel like the Sox and Yankees are engaged in a fight to the finish?

“Oh yeah,’’ said pitcher Jon Lester. “We all know that going into spring training, regardless of what we both look like on paper, we’re both going to be in it.

“Tampa’s obviously done really well this year,’’ he added. “If they’re in any other division, they’re fighting for first place. So, yeah, we know what’s expected of us and we know what’s expected of them.

“And we know it’s going to be a dogfight to the end.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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