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Yanks-Red Sox rivalry has new big player: J.D.

Cora: Slugger 'makes everybody else better' with Boston atop AL East
MLB.com @MikeLupica

BOSTON -- We are only a month into baseball season, and already the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is turning out to be everything we thought it would be. And more. It's a lot.

The Red Sox won 17 of their first 19, and they were already making the Yankees and their fans watch the scoreboard as if it were September. Aaron Boone, the rookie Yankees manager, was asked if he was noticing what the Red Sox were doing.

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BOSTON -- We are only a month into baseball season, and already the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is turning out to be everything we thought it would be. And more. It's a lot.

The Red Sox won 17 of their first 19, and they were already making the Yankees and their fans watch the scoreboard as if it were September. Aaron Boone, the rookie Yankees manager, was asked if he was noticing what the Red Sox were doing.

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"It's hard not to notice," Boone said.

The Red Sox were 17-2. The Yankees started off 9-10. So even that early, the Red Sox were eight games better in the loss column. By then, of course, there had already been a big fight at Fenway one night, precipitated by Tyler Austin making something out of what Brock Holt and his teammates thought was a cheesy slide into second base and then igniting for real, like a fireworks show at old Fenway, when Smokin' Joe Kelly hit Austin later in the game. It also seemed cheesy that the coverage of all that suggested that it took a fight to make this rivalry feel alive again, but there it was.

Video: NYY@BOS: Benches clear in Boston after Austin's slide

What we have found out since, though, is that the real fight between these two teams is going to be what we thought it would be and want it to be -- the knockdown, drag-out fight for first place in the American League East, and the fight to not have to play in the AL Wild Card Game that the Yankees won last season on their way to the AL Championship Series. It wasn't so long ago that the Red Sox looked as if they might run away from everybody the way the Tigers did in 1984, when they started 35-5. But the way the Sox have looked in their last two games against the Rays, the Red Sox might not even be in first place when they get to Yankee Stadium in 10 days.

Mookie Betts looked like the AL Most Valuable Player Award winner for April just a week or so ago. Now it looks to be Didi Gregorius, who came into Saturday's games having hit almost as many home runs (10) as Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton combined (12). Coming out of Spring Training, it seemed that prized Yankees kids like Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres wouldn't be big factors for the 2018 team. Now they are. 

In the same week, Gary Sanchez hit a three-run, bottom-of-the-ninth homer to walk off against the Twins, and after flying across the country, Gregorius went deep in the 10th to beat the Angels.

Video: Must C Clutch: Sanchez belts a walk-off homer to left

In Boston, Betts has been a wonder and J.D. Martinez has turned out to be exactly what the Red Sox wanted him to be and what they needed him to be, coming off a 2017 season when the Sox, even winning the AL East from the Yankees, did everything except hit home runs in a home-run sport.

"[Martinez] is important," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Friday afternoon in the interview room at Fenway. "Very important. ... He is a presence in our lineup."

It does not mean that Martinez is David Ortiz or Manny Ramirez, even though Cora often alludes to Ramirez when talking about Martinez and his ability to drive the ball, especially to the opposite field the way he did in Toronto this week, when he turned a game around with one swing, the kind of swing he was hired to make.

But when I asked Cora to elaborate further on presence, he said, "He makes everybody else better." And that is saying plenty in a batting order that has Betts and Andrew Benintendi and a resurgent Hanley Ramirez and Xander Bogaerts, who was back in the lineup Friday night after being on the disabled list because of a left ankle injury.

Video: BOS@LAA: Martinez notches four hits, RBI in 9-0 win

Martinez did not hit as many home runs as Stanton did last season in Miami. He did not hit as many as Judge did for the Yankees, either. But Martinez, around a major right foot injury that caused him to miss more than 40 games, still managed to hit 45 home runs in 119 games.

There is no more important home-run hitter in the sport, considering the home-run hole the Red Sox have had in the middle of their order since Ortiz retired, than Martinez is for these Sox. He is as important to the team's prospects this season -- and because of a $223 million payroll, there is no more of a win-now team in the sport than Boston -- as Betts is.

Even on Friday night at Fenway, Martinez got his 20th RBI in the eighth inning of a game in which the Sox had been trailing the Rays all night, a single that brought them back to 4-3, as close as they would get.

Cora also spoke on Friday afternoon about how Martinez is so much more than just a home-run hitter, and how he began to understand that when the two of them met during the Winter Meetings. "And I thought I was passionate about baseball," Cora said.

Cora spoke of how it was just four years ago that the Astros released Martinez, before he remade his swing and rebuilt his career and became even more of a student of the game than ever before, even more of a "grinder" as Cora called him, and finally got himself to Boston and into the big money and this kind of big baseball stage.

"He is," Cora said, "some story."

Now Martinez is part of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. The Sox lost a one-run game on Friday night. Later, the Yankees won one in Anaheim. On Saturday afternoon, the Red Sox left an army of runners on base early, David Price looked like a $2.17 pitcher instead of $217 million, they made the Rays look like the Yankees as the Rays beat them up, 12-6, and Betts left the game with a sore right hamstring. They showed you how quickly the narrative has flipped in the AL East. And really might be out of first place in a week.

So much has happened already in baseball, not just to them. But an awful lot has happened with them. It's not even May 1 yet. Some story, and not just Cora's cleanup hitter.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com. He also writes for the New York Daily News.

Boston Red Sox, J.D. Martinez