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An interesting wrinkle in Sox-Yanks AL East race

MLB.com @matthewhleach

As the Red Sox and Yankees prepare to tangle for first place in the American League East, both this weekend and for the next three months, there's a curious quirk about their battle.

Thanks to the second Wild Card, there's no doubt that both teams want very badly to win the division. That's the only way to avoid a one-game, season-on-the-line test in the Wild Card round -- a test in which either team would almost certainly throw its ace, reducing its chances in the American League Division Series round.

As the Red Sox and Yankees prepare to tangle for first place in the American League East, both this weekend and for the next three months, there's a curious quirk about their battle.

Thanks to the second Wild Card, there's no doubt that both teams want very badly to win the division. That's the only way to avoid a one-game, season-on-the-line test in the Wild Card round -- a test in which either team would almost certainly throw its ace, reducing its chances in the American League Division Series round.

But they might -- emphasize might -- not want to win that prize by too much if they had their druthers. A one-game margin, and second overall in the AL, might be just fine.

That's because the team with the best record in the AL, be it Houston, Boston or New York (or, conceivably, someone else, but that seems less likely by the day), draws the winner of the Wild Card Game in the Division Series. Meanwhile, the second-best division winner would draw the No. 3 division winner, most likely Cleveland.

And although every playoff team is a threat, well, there are threats and there are threats. Cleveland is on pace to win 90 games. The Yankees, currently in the first Wild Card position, are on a 108-win pace.

So you can make a pretty good case that the ideal scenario for either team is to beat the other but fall just short of the Astros. That would ensure home-field advantage in the Division Series, and most likely in the World Series if they got that far, but not in the AL Championship Series.

It's unlikely that they would play that way even if they wanted to, of course. That's the beauty of the without-a-net nature of the second Wild Card. If the Yankees or Red Sox were to take it easy, they'd risk having to face, say, James Paxton and Seattle in a one-and-done. They'll be charging hard till the end, because the difference between first and second place in the division is far bigger than the difference between first and second overall.

But what about the Astros? Let's say they have a healthy division lead with a couple of weeks to play, maybe even an early clinch, but they find themselves neck-and-neck with the East contenders. Would they decide to rest a few guys? There's no way they wouldn't try to win, but the consequences of making sure to get healthy for the postseason might not be too dire in their situation. It could be very interesting to watch.

There are certainly counters to this whole line of thinking. First, the AL East runner-up is not guaranteed to win the Wild Card Game, so it's possible the best record won't draw the first Wild Card no matter what. They could see, say, a Mariners team that had already burned Paxton. That's theoretically preferable to a full-strength Cleveland or a compromised AL East runner-up.

And let's not pretend that Cleveland is a pushover. You're talking about a team with a potent postseason rotation. Nobody is going to go out of their way to draw the 2016 AL champs, even when the other choice is the Red Sox or Yankees. And then there's the question of home-field in the ALCS, which isn't nothing.

But it's definitely a wrinkle, an extra dimension to what already promises to be a fascinating race.

Matthew Leach is the National League executive editor for MLB.com.