The Red Sox have much bigger goals than sweeping the Yankees.
They've already turned that trick twice this year, including Sunday's 9-2 victory over Gerrit Cole and the spiraling Bombers. The result should surprise no one. They're deeper, tougher, and ultimately better than their traditional archrivals, who could be headed for Celtics-like changes in management.
They know they're the better team, and that's why they're aiming much higher. With the official halfway point of the season looming, and with ace Chris Sale taking his most concrete steps yet towards a return, the first-place Red Sox have every reason to believe they can actually win it all.
"If we want to go to the playoffs and we want to go to the World Series, it's not just win three games against the Yankees," said Sunday's winner, Eduardo Rodriguez. "It's win against every team in the league. That's the only way we're going to make it to the playoffs."
The weekend series felt like the first time that the Red Sox graduated from overachieving curiosity to legitimate contender. Outside of right-hander Garrett Richards, who remains a mess over his inability to slather God knows what on a baseball, the rotation has begun to stabilize.
Right-hander Nick Pivetta took a no-hitter into the seventh vs. the Rays. Veteran Nathan Eovaldi carried a shutout into the eighth vs. New York. Rodriguez outdueled Cole for six innings in what was easily his best start of the season. And that's before we even consider the potential impact of Sale returning sometime in late July or early August.
The offense has expanded to include not just the top four of Alex Verdugo, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers, but rugged right fielder Hunter Renfroe. If chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom is able to find a left-handed hitting first baseman, and if prospect Jarren Duran can provide a boost when he's inevitably promoted, the Red Sox should be able to rival the Astros and Jays for the AL's best offense.
Add a bullpen that has stabilized with the emergence of left-hander Josh Taylor and a return to form for veteran Adam Ottavino in front of closer Matt Barnes, and we're looking at a club that's built to last.
It all came perfectly into focus over the last three days against New York, wins that dropped the Yankees into fourth place and left the Red Sox more convinced than ever that they're in this thing to win it all.
"All around, it's probably the best series we've played the whole season," said manager Alex Cora. "We played great defense, we ran the bases well, we put pressure on them, and we got timely hitting."
The Red Sox won Friday's opener despite some sloppy defense that cost starter Martin Perez three unearned runs. It didn't matter, because the bullpen pitched a shutout in a 5-3 victory. Eovaldi then controlled the middle game after a couple of sacrifice flies gave the Red Sox an early lead, and Ottavino slammed the door by striking out Aaron Judge with two on to end the 4-2 victory. On Sunday, the Red Sox then punched Cole in the face, Kiké Hernández driving the first pitch of the game over the left field wall, Devers following with a three-run homer, and Rodriguez never looking back.
The Red Sox are now 6-0 vs. the Yankees and have outscored them 36-17, winning close games, blowouts, and everything in between. Challenges remain in the American League in the form of the White Sox, Rays, and especially the Astros, but It's enough to make a team believe it's destined for greater things.
"About the team, we're hitting a lot," Rodriguez said. "The starting pitchers, I think we're getting better the last couple of starts and we know we're going to get better every time out there. The bullpen is very good, you guys see it every day. And our hitters, they're special. Every time they score runs for us. I feel like this team has an opportunity to go to the World Series."