Boston pitcher Nathan Eovaldi will start on Friday against the Yankees in the first game of a crucial three-game series. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

For neutral fans, this weekend series between the Yankees and Red Sox is as good as it gets – baseball’s two most combative rivals going at it, separated by two games in the standings with nine left to play, housed in the charm factory of Fenway Park.

For the Yankees and Red Sox, as well as their legions of fans, this should be three days of white-knuckling and the most stress the regular season can provide. The manager of the Yankees is finding solace in the fact that his team is finally able to confront its biggest obstacle head-on.

“What’s comforting is that we’re in control of it,” Aaron Boone said of his team’s path to the postseason, echoing a message he’s leaned on for weeks. “Regardless of what happens to start this trip, we’re in control of things. It’s right in front of us.”

Weeks of scoreboard watching will give way to head-to-head competition. The Yankees can breathe easy knowing that if they win their games this weekend, they gain games on the Red Sox. The same thing is true of their series to start next week against the Blue Jays.

“We don’t have to get help from anyone else,” Boone said. “We don’t have to look to anyone else, it’s on us.”

The Red Sox – winners of seven straight – might have something to say about that. Boston leads a tightly packed race for the two American League wild card spots heading into the final weekend of September. The Yankees currently hold a half-game lead over the Blue Jays, who face the Twins in Minneapolis on Thursday night.

First things first is the Red Sox, particularly starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi. He’ll match up with Gerrit Cole on Friday in a heavyweight fight between two of the American League’s best. In one corner, Cole’s 34.2% strikeout rate and 1.03 WHIP. In the other, Eovaldi’s AL-best 4.4% walk rate and filthy curveball that the league has hit .180 on this season. On paper, the potential series of the year looks to be kicking off with a game of the year candidate as well.

The strategies aren’t going to change for Cole, who’s made 43 career regular-season starts in September or October and held the warriors on the other side to a pedestrian .217/.272/.338 slash line. He understands the magnitude of the moment but won’t let that cloud his mental space.

“I think you just have to approach it like you would every other game,” Cole said. “For big postseason starts, big regular-season starts, or starts in the beginning of April, I try to keep the same level of attention to detail and keep my same process that I always do.”

This will be the fourth time Cole’s drawn the Boston assignment this season. The first three all came within a month of each other, and the final two got him corrected after giving up eight hits and five earned runs in a loss at Fenway on June 27. He has 25 strikeouts to six walks in 16 total innings vs. the Red Sox this year but has been tagged for four home runs and a 5.06 ERA. Knowing what he knows about their lineup, but also what their lineup knows about him, the chess match on the field will be a fascinating subplot on Friday.

“There’s an element of ‘try and hit it’ to every pitch,” Cole said of forgetting the mind games and just straight up challenging hitters. “But, using your strengths in slightly different ways and remembering how your opponents have counteracted or blocked some of your blows, you try to use those to your advantage.”

Saturday and Sunday won’t have the star power on the mound that Cole-Eovaldi brings, but the games will be just as important in the grand scheme of things. On Saturday, New York’s sidearm sensation Nestor Cortes Jr. squares off against Red Sox righty Nick Pivetta, who is the pitcher the Yankees hope to rough up. Pivetta walks over 10% of the hitters that step in the box and has had 23 of his pitches turn into home runs, most of anyone on Boston’s staff. That game looks like the clearest advantage for the Yankees.

Sunday is a toss-up between southpaws. Jordan Montgomery and Eduardo Rodriguez will pitch for an ESPN audience. Montgomery has established his bona fides as the Yankees’ No. 2 starter, with a 3.55 ERA that ranks in the top 10 of American League starters (minimum 140 innings). In the second half, the string bean from South Carolina affectionately known as Gumby has a 2.54 ERA and has only made one start that resulted in more than three earned runs.

Rodriguez is better than his 4.97 ERA indicates, as his strikeout percentage and ground ball rate are both slightly better than Eovaldi’s. The problem for Rodriguez is that balls put in play against him become a hit more often than they do for any other AL pitcher, a testament to both how unreliable the Red Sox defense can be, but also how the veteran has suffered from baseball’s wacky luck conspiring against him. Both the Yankees and Red Sox fare well against lefties, so with a pair of them taking the hill on Sunday, look for the bullpens to decide the outcome.

Anything can happen on a given night at the ballpark, and especially when these two bitter rivals are sharing it, which should make every pitch of this season-defining series fraught with intrigue.

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