One thing is certain since Ryan Dempster drilled Alex Rodriguez last month - the New York Yankees are slowly but surely climbing into playoff contention.
The Yankees and visiting Boston Red Sox meet Thursday night for the first time since that incident, which may have boosted New York in its playoff push.
There always seems to be an added level of intrigue when these arch-rivals meet. That's even more the case since the Yankees' 9-6 victory at Boston on Aug. 18.
Dempster hit Rodriguez with a 3-0 pitch in the second inning of that finale of a heated series in which several Boston players complained that the embattled third baseman was allowed to appeal his 211-game suspension by Major League Baseball in the Biogenesis drug case.
New York manager Joe Girardi was vociferous afterward in defending Rodriguez, who homered off Dempster later in the game. Girardi says the focus will be on baseball in this series.
"I think that obviously we know what's at stake and we have to go out and play the games and win the games, and that's the most important thing," Girardi said.
Dempster, who has returned since drawing a five-game suspension for the incident, won't start in this four-game set. Slugger David Ortiz said that he thought it was a bad decision for Dempster to hit Rodriguez, and was then forced to clarify his remarks because it was taken as if he was criticizing a teammate.
"All I said was that I didn't think that hitting A-Rod was right at the time and it was because that kind of woke him up and we ended up losing the game. Did I lie about that?" Ortiz told the Red Sox's official website. "I think it was what everybody saw. I didn't say that I was mad at my teammates for hitting somebody, or I was mad that he hit A-Rod."
The Yankees (75-64) trailed Tampa Bay by 6 1/2 games after that contest, and have narrowed that gap to 2 1/2 for the AL's second wild card by winning 11 of 16 since after sweeping three games from the White Sox this week.
Boston (84-57) leads third-place New York by eight games in the AL East.
Ortiz went 3 for 5 with two homers to reach the 2,000-hit plateau Wednesday as the Red Sox matched the franchise record by going deep eight times in their ninth win in 11 games, 20-4 over Detroit.
"It was like lighting a firework. ... I see everybody happy," Ortiz said. "It's like the fireworks just keep on coming.'
Thursday's matchup of right-handers seems to favor New York since it has won six straight starts by Ivan Nova (8-4, 2.88 ERA) while Boston starter Jake Peavy (11-5, 3.91) has lost all four prior outings versus the Yankees.
Nova went 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA in six August starts to earn AL pitcher of the month honors, tossing a three-hitter Saturday for his first career shutout in a 2-0 victory over Baltimore. He's 2-1 with a 4.94 ERA in five career starts versus Boston, with Dustin Pedroia 4 for 8 against him.
Peavy, who owns a 3.96 career ERA against the Yankees, is 3-1 with a 3.18 ERA in six starts since Boston acquired him July 30 from the White Sox.
Derek Jeter is 0 for 8 against Peavy, his worst mark against any active pitcher.
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