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MLB.com Columnist

Hal Bodley

There's no stopping the determined Red Sox

There's no stopping the determined Red Sox

There's no stopping the determined Red Sox

ST. PETERSBURG -- The high-flying Red Sox jetted out of Florida on Thursday night and headed for Fenway Park, where they're playing the Evil Empire in a "ho-hum" weekend series.

When was the last time the Yankees and Red Sox battled and it wasn't really a crucial series with the American League East title at stake for one or the other?

The Red Sox, the AL's best team, are on cruise control.

The Yankees, on the other hand, are trying to overtake the Rays for the league's second Wild Card berth.

So, I guess this latest session of the Hatfields vs. McCoys is more meaningful than it appears to Red Sox fans. Yet there's nothing that excites Red Sox Nation more than beating the Yankees.

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino nicknamed the Yankees the Evil Empire when they were outspending and outplaying just about every other team in the big leagues.

That's no so this year. Oh, they still have an enormous payroll, but it's not been a typical year for the world's most famous sports franchise. With the problems and injuries the Yankees have had this year, it's amazing they still have a solid chance to once again perform in the postseason, even if it is Major League Baseball's version of Russian Roulette. That's the one-game elimination between the two AL Wild Card teams.

Enough about the Yankees.

This is about the Red Sox and the amazing job AL Manager of the Year-to-be John Farrell has done lifting this team from 2012's last-place finish to the lofty perch they've enjoyed most of this amazing summer. They were picked by many to once again finish last.

With fewer than three weeks -- just 14 games -- left, the Red Sox are poised to go very deep in the postseason. They are certainly capable of returning to the World Series for the first time since 2007. I'll be surprised if they don't.

If the postseason were to open today, the Rays and Rangers would be playing the Wild Card Game, with the winner facing the Red Sox in the best-of-five AL Division Series.

The postseason is all about pitching and rested players.

Because Boston has opened such a huge lead (8 1/2 games) in the AL East heading into Friday, Farrell has the luxury of picking and choosing how he rests his players.

He showed that in Thursday night's 4-3 loss to the Rays, even though the Red Sox were trying to sweep the three-game series at Tropicana Field.

Farrell rested the productive Shane Victorino, and in a 3-3 game, he did not use his reliable relievers, including lights-out closer Koji Uehara. Instead, the manager sent the likes of Drake Britton, Rubby De La Rosa and Matt Thornton to the mound. Thornton gave up eighth-inning doubles to Evan Longoria and Wil Myers that produced Tampa Bay's fourth run and the victory.

When Clay Buchholz made his first start since June 8 and pitched so well against the Rays on Tuesday night, he improved his record to 10-0 and lowered his ERA to 1.61.

Buchholz, who'd been out so long because of a neck strain, is the first Red Sox pitcher to begin a season 10-0 since Roger Clemens did it in 1986. More important to Farrell is he now knows Buchholz will be an integral part of the formidable postseason rotation that includes John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Ryan Dempster and Jon Lester. Felix Doubront has been taken out of the rotation, but he's expected to get a start or two before the season ends.

"It's really good to see Clay back on the mound for us. I think that gave everybody a boost in confidence," said Farrell. "A healthy Clay Buchholz is going to be a great addition."

Resting veterans such as Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli is a must.

The fact the Red Sox will not play until Oct. 4, when the AL Division Series begins, will also give Farrell some days to freshen his starters. Boston's season ends on Sunday, Sept. 29, in Baltimore.

Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has a compression fracture of the navicular bone in his right foot. It's likely he won't be back until the postseason, but this plays into the luxury the Red Sox have with their magic number down to eight to clinch the division title.

A week ago, the Red Sox won three out of four against the Yankees in New York. They scored 37 runs, and they lead the Major Leagues with 769 runs.

The Red Sox have already won 20 more games than last year (69-93), the team's largest increase in wins since 1967, and when they took two of three from the Rays, they won their 31st series -- best in the Majors.

When they took the field against the Yankees on Friday night, they'd won 16 of their past 22 games.

"We're trying to win every series," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "That's our No. 1 goal from here on out. It's all about Game 1 against the Yankees, and we'll go series by series. It would be nice to win the East as soon as possible, and we'd rather do it sooner than later."

Said Jonny Gomes: "We're in a situation where we don't look outside this clubhouse. We don't scoreboard watch. We don't worry about who's pitching. We beat everyone already, you know. We've beat team's aces. We've scored a lot. We've won close games. We've set ourselves up where, if we play our game, we win the division."

Farrell put it this way: "We thought coming into Spring Training this was a good group. It was a group, however, that needed to blend together because of the number of new players added. And it did.

"But this is a group that loves to play the game. That's been evident by the way we've come back late in some games, the way we've finished out certain games. There's a continuing growing confidence within our team."

I mentioned to Farrell how comforting it must be to have so much breathing room with only 14 games to go.

"There's a difference in the standings, but I don't know if it's necessarily breathing room," he said. "The beauty about our club is they don't pay too much attention to the external things. They're focused on what we need to do to win. That characteristic is what has allowed us to avoid any lengthy downturn. It's kept us as consistent as we've been."

And the right to view the Evil Empire as just another team.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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