Yanks vs. Sox still all about October

The two best teams in baseball open the season against each other Sunday night, and six months from now, they will close it the same way. But only one of them can get to the World Series and nothing that happens Sunday night at Fenway Park will offer the slightest clue as to which one that will be.

The Yankees and Red Sox played nine times last season before the Yankees were finally able to come away with a victory, and that wasn't until Aug. 6, when precisely two-thirds of the season had already been played.

And yet, on that day, when the Yankees narrowed the gap in the head-to-head battle between themselves and their hated rivals to 1-8, they also extended their lead in the AL East to 3½ games. What should have translated into a 16-game swing in the East race not only failed to help the Red Sox run off with the division, it had just kept them (barely) in the race.

And by the end of the season, with the Yankees-Red Sox mini-war having ended in a 9-9 stalemate -- a tally that should have indicated a close divisional race -- the standings showed the AL East race to have been no race at all, the Yankees a commanding eight games ahead at the finish line.

In a game that is married to and defined by its numbers, that 8-0 start by the Red Sox turned out to be the very definition of the meaningless statistic.

That is why there is no reason to assign more importance than is absolutely necessary to these first three Yankees-Red Sox tilts. Enjoy them for the intensity of the rivalry, for the vociferousness of the crowd, and for the level of excellence on both sides of the field.

But live and die by the results? You've got to be out of your mind.

"It's special when you play in Boston because of the atmosphere but we've played those guys so many times throughout the years I don't think it's any different than if we were opening up with another team," Derek Jeter said. "To me, I don't think it makes a difference who you open up with."

In many ways, this Yankees-Red Sox opener will look a lot like other Yankees-Red Sox games of the recent past. CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett, the best starting pitchers each team can offer, will be on the mound. Jeter, of course, will be at shortstop for the Yankees, Jorge Posada will be behind the plate, Mariano Rivera will be looming in the bullpen looking to shorten the game, and Fenway's favorite whipping boy, Alex Rodriguez, will be glancing over his shoulder at third.

At the same time, several significant things will have changed. Johnny Damon, who has played in every Yankees-Red Sox game for one side or the other over the past eight seasons, is gone, his spot in left field now occupied by Brett Gardner and his 2-hole in the Yankees' batting order taken by Nick Johnson.

World Series MVP Hideki Matsui, too, is gone, to the Angels, his run-producing responsibilities at No. 5 now the job of Robinson Cano. And the Yankees' pitching rotation, famously shortened to three reliable arms throughout last year's postseason run, has been shored up by the return of Javier Vazquez.

But those changes, significant though they are, are nothing compared to the transformation the Red Sox have gone through. They have retooled their once fearful lineup through attrition and necessity, replacing Jason Bay with Mike Cameron, adding the speedy Marco Scutaro at shortstop and Yankees nemesis John Lackey to an already formidable starting rotation. And clearly, with the loss of Bay and the decline of David Ortiz and Jason Varitek, the emphasis this year will be on pitching and defense.

Still, it's the Yankees and Red Sox and no matter when they play in the season or what it says in the standings, it doesn't get much better than this.

"Every team we play wants to beat us," said Jeter. "There's no more of a bull's-eye on us this year than any other year. I think it's exactly the same as it always is. And our mindset doesn't change because we won last year, because we're always supposed to win anyway."

If last year taught the Yankees and Red Sox anything, it's not to sweat the early season results too much, or, in the case of the Red Sox, to rely on them. The aim this weekend for both teams should be not so much to come away with three wins, but 25 healthy bodies.

"I think our motivation is simple," Jeter said. "We just want to win, all the time."

It's a long season and often what appears to be of vital importance in April is forgotten by October. With luck, the truly important Yankees-Red Sox series will begin on Oct. 1, with both teams within a game of each other and three games remaining to decide which one is best.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.