For the New York Yankees, it is certainly a relief to have clinched a playoff spot before spending the regular season's final weekend in Boston.
If their veteran mainstays can round into postseason form, that will provide further peace of mind.
The Yankees will look for an improved performance from Andy Pettitte when he takes the mound Friday for the opener of a three-game series against the arch-rival Red Sox.
One of four players - along with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera - remaining from the Yankees' 1990s World Series clubs, Pettitte (11-3, 3.17 ERA) figures to play a key role behind ace CC Sabathia in the postseason rotation. However, in two starts since returning from a groin strain that sidelined him for two months, the 38-year-old left-hander hasn't appeared ready for October dominance.
Pettitte had a terrible time at home against the Red Sox last Friday, giving up seven runs and a season-high 10 hits in 3 1-3 innings of a 10-8 loss. Despite those ominous numbers, manager Joe Girardi didn't appear concerned.
"It's not what you want to see,' Girardi said. "But I believe in Andy and I believe he'll bounce back in his next start.'
Girardi and the rest of the Yankees also surely believe in Jeter, though that faith has been tested more than usual in 2010. The captain has endured his worst offensive season at age 36. Now batting .268, he's certain to finish with the lowest average of his career except for a 15-game stint as a minor-league callup in 1995.
"Don't count Derek Jeter out in the month of September and the postseason. This is a guy that knows how to play this game,' Girardi said. "The law of averages said this guy's going to hit. He's got 2,900 hits. And he's not 45, you know? There's still good baseball in him.'
Girardi and the law of averages may be correct. After batting .229 during a prolonged slump from June 30-Sept. 10, the shortstop is hitting .333 in his last 17 games. He's reached base safely in 18 straight.
"It's not always how you start. It's how you finish - especially when you're going to the playoffs,' Jeter said. "So regardless of whether you have a great regular season or poor regular season, you know, you get in these games, you can contribute, and you forget about what's happened up until this point.'
The Yankees (94-65) have dropped six of eight, but managed to clinch at least the wild card and eliminate Boston (87-72) with a 6-1 victory over Toronto on Tuesday. That was their only win in three games at Rogers Centre, though, and they enter the season's final weekend tied with Tampa Bay atop the East. If the teams finish tied, the Rays would be division champions by virtue of winning the season series with the Yankees.
The schedule hasn't done New York any favors. While the Yankees face Boston, the Rays play at AL Central-worst Kansas City.
The Red Sox will give Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-6, 4.72) the ball Friday for his fifth attempt at earning his 10th win. The right-hander is 0-2 with a 6.84 ERA in his last four starts.
The most effective of those outings came Sunday at Yankee Stadium. He allowed two runs and four hits over eight innings and left with the lead, but failed to get a decision as Jonathan Papelbon blew the save and the Red Sox fell 4-3 in 10 innings.
Matsuzaka is 3-3 with a 5.70 lifetime ERA versus the Yankees. Jeter is 7 for 19 with two homers off him.
Boston has dropped four of five, including an 8-2 road loss Thursday to the White Sox.
The Yankees lead the season series 8-7, and hold a 4-2 edge at Fenway Park.
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