NEW YORK (AP) – Three weeks ago, when the New York Yankees were eight games under .500 and closer to the bottom of the American League East than they were to the top, Boston manager Terry Francona took note of their plight.

“To be honest with you,” the manager of the defending world champions said, “I wanted them to lose as much as they could because you know they are going to get hot, but I guess I wanted the hole to be bigger. The more they have to dig themselves out, the better for us, not only for us but better for our league.”

But New York didn’t concern itself with the rest of the league. The Yankees went on a 10-game winning streak and staged a rapid recovery. Meanwhile, the Red Sox began to stagger and now, as the teams prepare for a weekend series in Yankee Stadium that begins Friday, they are as close as they were when the season began.

The role reversal has been dramatic. Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon put it bluntly.

“We’re a really bad team right now,” Damon said. “We need to get back to that stage where every game is a must win instead of just saying Oh, we’ll be OK.’ It’s a different year.

“We have a big series this weekend. It’s always a great series. Both teams really get up for each other. All eyes are going to be on this series this weekend. Hopefully, we’ll be sharp, a lot sharper than we have been.

“We are definitely very sick of them and I’m sure they are sick of us.”

Slugger David Ortiz was concerned with Boston’s play.

“We’re struggling all around,” he said. “We’re not hitting, we’re not playing good defense. Sometimes our pitching is not there.”

New York knows that tune. The Yankees were 11-19 before their turnaround, their worst start after 30 games since 1966.

“We knew we had a good ballclub, even when we were playing bad,” first baseman Tino Martinez said.

Francona wasn’t feeling sorry for them.

“Whoever wrote them off is crazy,” he said. “I bet everybody did, but you know they are going to be good. I wish they weren’t good now. We caught them at the beginning of the season and we’re catching them now.”

Yankees manager Joe Torre said his team brings a different attitude to games these days.

“We’re going at it better,” Torre said. “It was bad effort on our part. We were back on our heels, waiting for something to happen instead of making it happen. You win a few games, it becomes normal to go to the park expecting to win. We’ve proven a lot of things to ourselves rather than hoping for them.”

Torre said facing the Red Sox now will be different than the first two series between the teams. New York won two of three to start the season and then Boston took two of three in the second week.

“You play a team 19 times, you’re going to run into them now and then,” he said. “We had opening day here and we had opening day there. It’s baseball now. It’s more than when you play someone else, though. We’re ready to play them. We’re comfortable at home right now.

“I feel pretty good about my team, until something changes my mind.”

Torre will send Randy Johnson out to pitch Friday night against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Carl Pavano goes for the Yankees on Saturday against unbeaten Matt Clement with Mike Mussina set for Sunday against David Wells.

Johnson will be pitching with five days rest instead of the four he prefers. Torre is not sure how he will handle that change.

“It’s something he’s not used to doing,” the manager said. “He has to find a way. His next two turns will be on a fifth day. Is he better on four days instead of five? I don’t know. He pitched his perfect game (last year) on the sixth or seventh day.

“If he threw his hands up and said, “I can’t do this,’ we’d have to do some more talking.”

Torre knows that no matter what happens this weekend, Boston and New York will still be behind first-place Baltimore in the American League East standings.

“We both know first place is not important until the end,” he said. “They weren’t first at the end last year and wound up on the top of the hill. If Baltimore keeps doing what it’s been doing, one of us, maybe both of us, is going to be disappointed.”

AP-ES-05-26-05 1841EDT

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