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09/17/07 2:15 AM ET

Red Sox don't take lead for granted

Season's remaining 12 games critical to outcome of AL East

BOSTON -- Now that their grueling head-to-head matchups with the Yankees are over -- at least for the regular season -- the Red Sox can get back to normalcy and focus on the task of nailing down their first American League East title since 1995.

Even after losing two out of three to the Yankees -- both defeats in heartbreaking fashion -- the Red Sox have a 4 1/2-game lead over their rivals in the division.

The Red Sox have 12 games left, starting with the opener of a three-game set in Toronto on Monday night. No rest for the weary.

"We've played hard all year," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "We've been winning this division all year long. We've got 12 more games left, and we've got to make a push."

Following three against the 74-75 Blue Jays, the Red Sox have Thursday off before opening a three-game series at Tropicana Field against the 63-87 Devil Rays.

The Red Sox will close the season with a six-game homestand. The 74-77 A's will come in for two on Sept. 25-26. Then it's the 72-77 Twins for the final four games.

In other words, none of the four opponents the Red Sox have left is a .500 team at this hour.

Is the race still on in the division?

"It's always on," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "Like I say, we have to focus on the way we play our game of baseball, and we'll be just fine."

The Red Sox have been in first place since April 18, but they continue to keep a very narrow focus. That approach has gotten them this far.

"I'd rather be 4 1/2 up than 4 1/2 down," said Red Sox right-hander Curt Schilling. "We really don't think that much about that or talk much about that. We are very good about staying focused in the game."

The Red Sox were their typical even-keeled selves, even after losing a series to the Yankees for the fourth consecutive time and dropping the season series, 10-8.

"We're cool," said Red Sox DH David Ortiz. "We just have to keep on playing like we have been. When you're on the top, you're on the top still. I don't think anyone is feeling pressure around here. We just lost a game, and we'll move forward and try to win the series over there in Toronto. We're in first place. Nothing has changed. We're in first place because we've won a lot of series. We have to keep it that way."

Yankees Coverage
Jeter's late homer lifts Yanks
Yanks gear up for lesser opponents
Chamberlain springs curve on Sox
Notes: Peace of mind for Posada

Red Sox Coverage
Schilling's gem ends with loss
Bauman: Game mirrors Classic duel
Sox don't take lead for granted
Notes: Matsuzaka pushed back
Season Series
Yankees win 10-8
• 9/16: Yankees 4, Red Sox 3
• 9/15: Red Sox 10,Yankees 1
• 9/14: Yankees 8, Red Sox 7
Previous season series
2006: Yankees 11, Red Sox 8
2005: Yankees 10, Red Sox 9
2004: Red Sox 11, Yankees 8

And, oh, by the way, the Red Sox should have a slugger named Manny Ramirez -- out the last 18 games with a strained left oblique -- returning at some point this week.

"I think we're playing pretty good baseball," said Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "Manny took a really good batting-practice [session] today. We get him back in the lineup, it will be a nice addition. There's 12 games left, and we want to keep playing well."

And if the Yankees keep playing well also, how about a third AL Championship Series in five years between the rivals?

"Probably, probably," said Ortiz. "They're playing well. You can never describe what's going to happen later on, but at least we don't have to deal with them for a while."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.