NEW YORK (AP) – For the past seven years, the Boston Red Sox have spent each September trying in vain to catch New York.

Now they get a chance to play with the lead.

Boston begins a big three-game series at Yankee Stadium on tonight with an opportunity to build a comfortable cushion over its longtime rival in the AL East.

After finishing second to the Yankees every season since 1998, the Red Sox went into Thursday night with a four-game edge as they pursue their first division title in a decade.

Instead of chasing New York again, they’re setting the pace down the stretch.

“It all feels tough still. It’s not just the Yankees chasing us, it’s all the wild-card teams, too,” Boston center fielder Johnny Damon said. “It’s been an incredible race.”

Depleted by injuries to their pitching staff, the $200 million Yankees have been trying all year to recover from an 11-19 start, so they’ve actually grown used to trailing by now.

They’ve been playing a crucial game nearly every night for the entire second half, a stark departure for a team accustomed to punching its playoff ticket with plenty of season to spare.

“We’ve been this way all year, so it’s not something that all of a sudden happened to us,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “In a way it’s good because we’ve played games that we’ve needed to win, so it’s a good habit to get into. You always have that danger that it’s going to wear on you.”

The Yankees entered Thursday with a half-game lead over Cleveland in the wild-card standings, but they remain focused on winning the AL East. To have a realistic chance, they probably need to win at least two of three this weekend.

The teams close the season with three games at Fenway Park.

“They need to win, too,” New York first baseman Tino Martinez said. “We still have a good chance.”

New York, which leads the season series 7-6, could be without Martinez and slugger Gary Sheffield because of injuries.

Martinez missed his seventh straight game Thursday night against Tampa Bay because of a strained right rib cage. Sheffield, runner-up for the AL MVP last season, sat out with a strained left thigh muscle. The right fielder got hurt chasing Jonny Gomes’ triple Wednesday night, and he desperately doesn’t want to miss the Boston series.

“That would be devastating to me,” Sheffield said. “I should be able to come back quicker than if it was a hamstring. I’m going to get the anti-inflammatories and see how I feel tomorrow.”

The Red Sox have had their share of injuries, too. Curt Schilling is still trying to find his form after offseason ankle surgery and an inconsistent stint as Boston’s closer. He will start the middle game on Saturday against Shawn Chacon.

Ex-Yankee David Wells gets the ball in the opener Friday night against Aaron Small, and the finale will pit Randy Johnson against Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

Both teams have struggled on the mound all year. The Yankees ranked eighth in the AL with a 4.48 ERA, and the Red Sox were 11th at 4.78.

“Don’t get it wrong – both teams are capable of pitching well,” Derek Jeter said. “The atmosphere makes it special, makes it fun.”

The Red Sox, who haven’t won a division title since 1995, finally turned the tables in this one-sided rivalry last year when they rallied from a 3-0 deficit to stun New York in the AL championship series. They went on to sweep St. Louis for their first World Series title since 1918.

But nobody in the Boston clubhouse seems to think owning a lead makes much of a difference when these teams meet.

“We’ve still got a grind and battle ahead of us. I think we’re going up against a great team and we’re going to have our hands full,” Gabe Kapler said. “I think the rivalry is there regardless of which team is in front.”

Small and Chacon were plugged into the rotation because of injuries to Carl Pavano, Mike Mussina, Jaret Wright, Chien-Ming Wang and Kevin Brown. Short on major league success before arriving in New York, both right-handers have done an outstanding job under pressure to keep the Yankees in the race.

“They’ve been able to step up when we need it,” catcher Jorge Posada said. “Now it’s time to really see em.”

The Yankees also picked up a couple of Boston castoffs since the teams last met, signing left-handed reliever Alan Embree and infielder Mark Bellhorn.

In a key situation, Embree could be called on to face slugger David Ortiz, a New York nemesis the last few years. And Bellhorn is eager to play against his former team.

“I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I signed here,” he said.

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