BOSTON (AP) – It’s not just the AL East title up for grabs when the New York Yankees go to Boston for three crucial games this weekend at Fenway Park. The league’s Most Valuable Player award might go to the star whose team wins the division.

Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez both have the eye-popping numbers that will put them near the top of most MVP ballots. But when it comes time for baseball writers to decide who is the most valuable, they often pick players who helped their teams reach the postseason.

“That’s how you win an MVP – getting into the playoffs and winning the World Series,” Ortiz said this week. “All I want to do is get into the playoffs one way or another.”

“I think the focus is on the team. I think a nice side note behind that is, obviously, the MVP race,” Rodriguez said. “No question, front and center right now is the Yankees vs. Boston.”

The MVP ballot does not require a player to reach the playoffs, but voters frequently say that a guy can’t be that valuable if his team doesn’t at least contend. Andre Dawson, starring for the Chicago Cubs in 1987, was the only player to win an MVP with a last-place team until Rodriguez with the Texas Rangers two years ago.

Of course, the ballot doesn’t require a player to play the field, either.

But no one has ever won the award playing designated hitter full-time; Don Baylor won it with the California Angels in 1979 playing 65 games at DH and 97 more in the field. On the other hand, a number of sluggers who were considered defensive liabilities have won the AL award, including two-time winners Frank Thomas and Juan Gonzalez. Rodriguez’s defense is expected to help him; he has just 11 errors and could win a third Gold Glove – his first at third base. Ortiz played just 10 games at first base this season. But the strength of Rodriguez’s MVP case is still his offense: He was hitting .319 with 129 RBIs and led the league with 47 homers and 119 runs entering Thursday night. Ortiz led the majors with 144 RBIs, and trailed A-Rod at 46 homers and 115 runs to go with his .296 average.

“Both are great players, both have had great years,” Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina said. “I think I give our guy the nod simply because he plays defense every day and Ortiz doesn’t.”

Not surprisingly, Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek thinks otherwise – and he didn’t need to wait until the weekend to see who is most valuable.

“I just think it should be David Ortiz. Period,” Varitek said Thursday. “The contribution he brings is tremendous. He’s just been such a big part of our success.”

Anaheim’s Vladimir Guerrero, who was the AL MVP last year, and Yankees closer Mariano Rivera also are among the contenders. Guerrero is batting .317 with 32 homers and 108 RBIs for the AL West champions; Rivera is 7-4 with 43 saves and a 1.40 ERA heading into Thursday night.

“There’s no right answer,” Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar said when asked to wade into the MVP debate. “They’re all great players.”

The easiest way for a contender to separate himself from the pack would be a strong weekend.

This will be the third consecutive year that the Yankees and Red Sox have a chance to eliminate each other. They met in the AL championship series in 2003 and 04, alternating trips to the World Series; the Yankees also knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs in the 1999 ALCS.

Although the Red Sox have finished second to the Yankees in each of the last seven regular seasons, the division hasn’t gone down to the wire since 1978, when light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent homered to win a one-game playoff and send New York to the postseason. The pennant came down to the final two games of the season in 1949, when Boston brought a one-game lead into Yankee Stadium. The Yankees won both to reach the playoffs and begin a dynasty that claimed 14 AL pennants and eight World Series titles in 16 years.

Before that, you have to go back to the 1904 season, when Boston met the New York Highlanders in a doubleheader on the final day of the season. Boston won the opener to take the pennant.

“You sit there and you say at the start of the season that the best team wins after 162 games. And now you’re down to the final three,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “We all know what the situation is. … To think that it’s come down to a handful of games to decide what 157 couldn’t decide, that’s great for baseball – but not too good for my stomach.”

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