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The American League East will be won in head-to-head matchups

These Red Sox-Yankees series are where the difference will be made.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into this 2018 season, we fully expected the race between the Red Sox and Yankees for the American League East title to be hotly contested. Based on my memory, there wasn’t really a consensus on who would win, though I seem to remember more analysts picking the Yankees than Red Sox. That could be incorrect, but either way no matter who was chosen by any given prognosticator it was extremely rare to find someone who expected the race to be a blowout in either direction. In fact, there was an argument to be made that this was the only division lacking a clear favorite. Now, other divisions around the league have gone down unexpected roads with some intriguing races elsewhere, but the AL East has played out exactly as expected. Both of these teams are great, and it’s going to go right down to the wire.

With the race being as tight as it is — the Red Sox are up by one game as I write this, with the Yankees holding a one-game advantage in the loss column — series such as the one coming up this weekend in the Bronx are going to be the deciding factor. Heading into this three-game set, the season series is tied at three games apiece, and the two sides have 13 games to play the rest of the way. I would be pretty surprised if the eventual winner of this division wasn’t the winner of the season series between the two rivals. This seems both obvious and like an oversimplification — and it probably is both of these things — but it’s also a feeling I just can’t shake.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Now, don’t take this to mean that this specific three-game series in New York is the be-all, end-all for the Red Sox this season. They don’t need to win this series. It would obviously be a good thing if they did (hot take!), but if they lose this one then they can win the next one, or the one after that. The order of wins isn’t that important here (though, and again this is fairly obvious, getting the wins now and pulling ahead would be better than the alternative), but ultimately they are going to be in the best position to win the division if they can hold an advantage over New York in the 19 games they play against each other over the course of the season.

There is a general rule in baseball that says the key to season-long success is to beat up on the bad teams and just not fall on your face against the good ones. The baseball season is such a grind that this is easier said than done, and the teams that are able to do this can generally separate themselves from the pack. That is not the case with the American League East in 2018, because both the Red Sox and Yankees are elite. They both have shown themselves capable of beating up on bad teams. They are on pace for 109 and 108 wins, respectively, and we are halfway through the season. This general rule does not apply. There needs to be another separating factor, and with the amount of times they play each other these matchups are almost certainly going to be that.

Like I said before, I am not saying this is a must-win series for the Red Sox this weekend. If they do drop this three-game set in the Bronx, the sky will not be falling and the American League East race will not be lost, despite what would surely be written and spoken in some spheres of the Boston media. There are too many more games between the two sides for this weekend to be that important. Still, winning the division in today’s game is such a huge deal given the Wildcard Game, and the Red Sox need to find any edge to get that done. This season, with two elite teams in a nearly unprecedented race, the head-to-head matchups seem very likely to present that edge.