It’s a common aphorism that objects in your rear-view mirror are closer than they appear.
That’s a saying New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi may want to invoke after he made what has to be a rare NASCAR reference in discussing the state of the AL East and the rivalry with the Boston Red Sox.
The last-place Red Sox are playing their best baseball and send the red-hot Clay Buchholz to the mound Friday night at Fenway Park as they look to close the gap on the first-place Yankees.
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New York (46-39) has a three-game East lead on Baltimore in a race in which no team can be counted out. Although Boston (41-45) is in last, it has won eight of 10 and a season-high four straight to pull within 5 1/2 games.
"There’s a good feeling in our clubhouse right now and we’re staying on that run of games," Red Sox manager John Farrell said.
Farrell’s counterpart, Girardi, made an interesting reference ahead of this three-game set.
"I talked to someone about our division who’s a NASCAR fan," Girardi said. "It’s like racing in Daytona or Talladega. If you get out of the draft, you can get from first to fourth in a heartbeat, first to fifth, that’s how bunched up we are."
What makes Boston’s play impressive is that it has come without superstar Dustin Pedroia, who is eligible to come off the disabled list Friday but does not appear ready to return from a right hamstring strain that has kept him out since June 24.
”Pedey’s responded well," Farrell said. "He’s going to be on the field when he’s first ready without any undue risk.”
The Red Sox’s resurgence has come with help from youngsters like Mookie Betts, who is 13 for 39 in his last nine games, and Xander Bogaerts, who is 13 for 30 with eight RBIs over a seven-game hitting streak.
Boston was a season-worst 10 games out of first June 20.
"Obviously they’re playing extremely well," Girardi said. "They’ve gotten back in the picture but I don’t think we ever believed that they wouldn’t be in the picture."
Another player who has stepped up is Buchholz (7-6, 3.27 ERA), who has posted an 0.87 ERA in winning four straight starts and is 5-0 with a 1.99 ERA in his last seven after pitching a six-hitter in Saturday’s 6-1 victory over Houston. His last five-start win streak was from May 22-Sept. 15, 2013.
The right-hander is 0-3 with a 9.74 ERA in four starts against the Yankees over the last two years, with All-Star Brett Gardner going 6 for 11. Alex Rodriguez is 11 for 27 overall in this matchup while Mark Teixeira is 4 for 26.
Teixeira has matched his RBI total from last year with an AL-best 62.
The Yankees will start right-hander Michael Pineda (8-5, 3.79), who is 0-2 with a 4.91 ERA in his last three starts after striking out 10 in seven-plus scoreless innings in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Tampa Bay.
Pineda went 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA in three starts against Boston last year. David Ortiz is 2 for 6 off him and Bogaerts is 2 for 4.
Boston has to be hoping that Ortiz gets untracked with the slugger posting a .761 OPS for his lowest mark with the Red Sox. Ortiz homered in Wednesday’s 6-3 home win over Miami.
He is batting a major league-worst .128 against left-handers and could face some tough such matchups out of the Yankees bullpen in Chasen Shreve and Andrew Miller.
Yankees third baseman Chase Headley could return Friday after missing two straight games with a sore right calf.
New York capped a 4-2 homestand with Thursday’s 6-2 win over Oakland. The Yankees have taken four straight over the Red Sox, sweeping three road games May 1-3.