Finally! Joba Chamberlain pitched up to his potential.
It had been a long, agonizing seven weeks since we saw a start like that from him, but he finally delivered at the right time, giving the Yankees hope that they'll have four strong starters heading into the playoffs.
Joba delivered a quality start -- three runs in six innings -- and Alex Rodriguez homered and drove in four as the Yankees knocked around Jon Lester in a 9-5 victory at Yankee Stadium Friday.
The Yankees' lead in the AL East over the Sox is 6-1/2 with their magic number sliced to three, meaning that if the Yankees win the next two, they'll be able to celebrate the division title right before Rogue Nation's eyes. The Red Sox's magic number for the wild card remained at three.
The Yankees (98-56) also moved 42 games over .500 for the first time since 2002 and have won seven of the eight games played against the Sox since the All-Star break after losing the first eight games of the season series against them this season.
But the story in this game for the Yankees was Joba.
Chamberlain has struggled badly since the Yankees began their well-intentioned but poorly executed attempts at limiting the 24-year-old righthander's innings to about 160. In his previous nine starts, he was 1-4 with an 8.25 ERA, .327 batting average against and .409 on-base percentage against.
That all disappeared Friday as Joba (9-6, 4.72 ERA) won for the first time since Aug. 6 (against the Red Sox) and had his strong start since July 29.
He allowed five hits and one walk, while striking out five and throwing 52 of 86 pitches for strikes. The Yankees had set a limit of 90 for Joba, meaning that should Joba replicate this type of outing Wednesday against the Royals, his arm strength should be back at 100 percent.
At some point between his last start and Friday, Joba had a stern conversation with Joe Girardi and the coaches, and it appears he finally got the message: pitch aggressively, trust the fastball and attack the strike zone.
He did all of the above, using his 95 mph fastball without fear, retiring the first 11 batters of the game and escaping a second and third, no out jam in the fifth by getting Jason Varitek to foul out, striking out Alex Gonzalez and inducing a ground out from Jacoby Ellsbury.
The only mistakes he made came on a two-out homer to Victor Martinez in the fourth and a two-run, opposite field homer to David Ortiz that made the score 6-3 in the sixth on a pitch that was off the plate, but belt high.
But by that point the Yankees had the game well under control as the offense jumped on Lester early and didn't let up, dealing the young lefthander his first loss since June 18 and first loss against the Yankees in eight career starts.
Lester, though, wasn't helped by the Sox's inability to stop the running game. The Yankees stole seven bases against Jason Varitek, including three by Rodriguez and two by Derek Jeter. That has to be disconcerting for Rogue Nation as the Sox appear headed to an ALDS matchup with Angels, a team that loves to run.
But that's Boston's problem.
Jeter singled to lead off the first, stole second and came around to score on A-Rod's two-out single to make it 1-0. In the process, Lester needed 30 pitches to get through the frame.
The Yanks then blew the game open in the third as Mark Teixeira led off with a single before A-Rod smoked a 93 mph, 1-and-1 fastball into the second deck in left for his 28th homer of the season to make it 3-0. He's now hitting .288 with 93 RBI after missing the first 28 games of the season.
But the Yankees didn't stop there. Hideki Matsui followed with a single, and after Jorge Posada flied out, Robinson Cano doubled and Nick Swisher walked to load the bases.
Then came as scary a moment as there is imaginable. Melky Cabrera lined a pitch back up the middle and nailed Lester on his right thigh for an infield single that scored Matsui to make it 4-0.
It took several minutes for trainers to help Lester back to his feet and them help him off the field.
Injuries happen to every team and I'll never, ever root for anyone, including a player on the Red Sox, to get hurt -- especially Lester who has had to overcome so much, including defeating cancer. It's classless, crass and morally reprehensible.
The good news -- and it is good news -- is that Lester sustained only a bruise. It could have been so much worse -- a broken leg or knee cap. And for a little while I was flashing back to when Bryce Florie took a shot to the face against the Yankees a few years back. Thank goodness, it's only a bruise.
Hunter Jones came on to replace Lester and allowed an RBI groundout by Jeter to complete Lester's line: 2-1/3 IP, 8 hits, 5 runs, 3 walks, 3 strikes and 47 of 78 pitches for strikes. It was the first time since May 15 that Lester had allowed five runs in a game.
The Yankees pushed across another run in the fourth on Jorge Posada's RBI single to make it 6-1, and made it 8-3 in the sixth on A-Rod's RBI double and Posada's RBI single. Teixeira added an RBI single in the seventh.
Five relievers came on to allow two runs, but still closed it out without having to tax Phil Hughes or use Mariano Rivera, which should set up today's game beautifully with CC Sabathia set to take the mound.
Runners In Scoring Position
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
Vs. Red Sox
Saturday vs. Red Sox, 4:10 p.m., FOX
Daisuke Matsuzaka (3-5, 6.80) vs. Sabathia (18-7, 3.31)
The Yankees have won each of Sabathia last 10 starts, with the big lefthander going 8-0 with a 2.24 ERA. Another win by the ace would cut the Yanks' magic number to one.