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They’ll take away something from this visit

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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By this time, the Red Sox should be nursing the bruise from the good, swift kick they gave themselves by losing two out of three games to the Yankees. Why? They gave the Yankees hope.

The Yankees, just a half-game behind the Red Sox, have begun to turn the Sox’ domination of them in 2011 into a more manageable, shorter, and current frame of success.

They can convince themselves that it doesn’t matter what happened then (that dreadful 2-10 start against Boston), it’s what’s going on now that matters.

“You look in this clubhouse,’’ Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher said last night, “and there’s always been a lot of confidence. This isn’t renewed confidence. You look at the numbers this team has put up and we know what we’re capable of doing. It was a big win, a big series for us.’’

Experience tells us the Yankees are no strangers to turning things around. In 2009, the Red Sox won the first eight games of the season series, and then the Yankees won eight of the next nine and went on to become the World Series champions.

And the opposite extreme: Boston, down, 0-3, in the 2004 ALCS, came back to win it.

The moral of the story is things can look bleak for one side, and the other side can always rally. Because we’ve witnessed this, we have to leave the possibility open that it could happen.

“I always felt we were a better club than what we had showed,’’ Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “We hadn’t played well against them. Pure and simple. They beat us six straight at home and I felt it was important for us to come in here and take the series. I think we pitched a lot better than we have all season against them and that lineup, which is a great lineup.’’

But while the Yankees may rise a bit against the Red Sox, they still face a tough haul against Boston if the teams should meet in the American League Championship Series.

The biggest question for the Yankees is: How will they be able to pitch against the Sox’ lineup?

Obviously, there were two breakthroughs in this series for the Yankees. They were able to win with CC Sabathia pitching, as the big fella broke a four-game losing streak against Boston with a 5-2 win Tuesday night.

Sabathia, as good as he is, had trouble convincing us that he’d turned the corner against the Sox despite the win. He allowed 10 hits, and the Sox stranded 10 runners in his six innings.

Yes, he had 10 strikeouts and got some outs when he had to, but did he give his team any hope that if he had to pitch three times against the Sox that he’d win, say, twice?

The second breakthrough came with veteran righthander A.J. Burnett. By his recent standards (1-2, 11.92 ERA in August), he pitched extremely well last night, lasting 5 1/3 innings and allowing two runs. He’s also 4-0 in six September starts vs. Boston.

Last night, Burnett executed changes to his delivery that pitching coach Larry Rothschild had suggested earlier in the weak. Burnett stuck with the changes in hand position on his delivery, both from the windup and stretch, and as a result seemed to have a better idea of where the ball was going.

But given his trials and tribulations this season and particularly this month, how can you project him vs. Boston? Phil Hughes? Freddy Garcia? Bartolo Colon?

Garcia has been terrific, but against Boston? Not so much. Colon is certainly capable of shutting down Boston, but if you’re the Red Sox, don’t you take your chances?

Ivan Nova? With a 14-4 record and a 3.96 ERA, he’s exceeded expectations, but a young kid in the playoffs? He sure could rise to the occasion, and then again he could be a frightened rookie.

The other glimmer of hope for the Yankees is that they hit Josh Beckett better, but still couldn’t beat him in five games this season. They are usually unable to beat Jon Lester (8-2 vs. the Yankees coming into last night), but they ran him out of the game after five innings because they got his pitch count to 114. Still, they managed one run against him.

The Yankees also hit Daniel Bard around, relevant in that both teams have lights-out, late-inning relievers and depend on them.

Offensively, the Yankees didn’t have to be homer-happy in winning two games. They usually must bash to win, and they’re capable of that. They have hit a major league-high 188 homers and a major league-high 42.9 percent of their runs have scored via the home run. They can take you deep any time, but their home runs threats - Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira (who is 7 for 54 against the Sox) - were kept inside the park.

The Yankees, despite a surge as a result of the series win, can’t feel 100 percent confident against the Red Sox, and though the Sox have less bravado after this series, they still have to feel they have the upper hand.

But the smiles on the faces of Yankee players last night indicate they’re hopeful the situation can flip. They were buoyed by the fact they were able to get Lester out of the game.

“Lester is so good he has the capability of being able to put people on base and get out of jams,’’ said Girardi. “We left people on base but in the process were able to get him out of the game after the fifth inning. And while Ace [Alfredo Aceves] has been outstanding for them and Bard being one of the best, we were able to do some things after Lester left the game.’’

Teixeira, whose right knee stiffened after he was hit with an Aceves pitch in the sixth, called it “a big win. To be able to beat a good pitcher like Lester, this is a good win for our team.’’

If the Yankees are ready to make their push against the Red Sox (there’s one more series left in New York), this isn’t a bad time to start.

“They beat us up pretty good earlier this season,’’ Girardi said. “We’re playing better against them lately.’’

And isn’t “lately’’ all that really matters?

While the answer to that question is yes, the Red Sox now need a recovery of their own against the Yankees. The lineups are pretty even. The bullpens are as well. The starting pitching matchups favor Boston, and that’s where the Sox have to capitalize. It was clear that in this series, they didn’t.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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