May 31, 2019 | 10:03pm
| Updated June 1, 2019 | 12:05am
DJ LeMahieu shakes hands with third base coach Phil Nevin after his solo home run.
After bludgeoning the weaker teams for most of the past six weeks, the Yankees stepped up in class Friday night against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium and delivered perhaps their best overall game of the season.
“It was just a good win,’’ said J.A. Happ of the 4-1 victory that was witnessed by a Yankee Stadium crowd of 45,556 and hiked the Yankees’ record to 3-0 against their rivals this season, which is just past the one-third pole. “We did a lot of good things tonight.’’
They beat Chris Sale, who somehow is 1-7. DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks delivered clutch hits. Gary Sanchez picked off Eduardo Nunez at second to end the fifth inning and kill a scoring threat. The Yankees’ bullpen provided four scoreless innings and Aroldis Chapman got the final three outs, with the last one, a strikeout, coming on a 100-mph pitch to Michael Chavis, to notch his 17th save in 18 tries.
The victory moved the Yankees 1 ½ lengths ahead of the second-place Rays in the AL East and increased their lead over the third-place Red Sox to 8 ½ games.
While the Yankees downplayed the large margin between them and the Red Sox, imagine how much angst the Tri-State area would be drowning in if the defending world champions were up by 8 ¹/₂ games on the Yankees before May slipped into June.
“That’s a good number, but we are barely past the [first] third of the season,’’ Aaron Boone said of his club that has won 14 of 17 games and is 37-19. “Such a long way to go.’’
At a pedestrian 29-28 the Red Sox don’t qualify as a powerhouse, but compared to the steady diet of lightweights the Yankees have gotten fat on, the Red Sox represented a greater challenge they easily met.
Happ (5-3) allowed a run and three hits in five innings and won his fourth straight decision. LeMahieu’s one-out double in the third tied the score, 1-1. Aaron Hicks fought out of a 0-2 hole to stroke a 3-2 pitch on the ground to left field that scored two and put the Yankees ahead, 3-1, in the same inning. LeMahieu added a solo homer in the sixth.
The quartet of Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton and Chapman extended the Yankees’ relievers scoreless streak to 20 innings.
Despite Sale’s record, he doesn’t provide a false sense of security for hitters like LeMahieu.
“He is a really good pitcher,’’ LeMahieu said of Sale, who started the game with a career 1.87 ERA in 18 games (15 starts) against the Yankees. “He is really a tough one to get.’’
LeMahieu is a tough out in the clutch. The RBI double raised his batting average to .457 (21-for-46) with runners in scoring position.
As for the 8 ¹/₂-game lead over the Red Sox, Brett Gardner agreed with the other voices that it is far too premature to start thinking the Red Sox are playing for one of the two AL wild-card spots.
“It’s way too early for that,’’ said Gardner, who singled and scored ahead of LeMahieu’s two-run double.
Gardner is right. So is Boone. The Yankees have 106 games remaining and 16 against the Red Sox.
A 4-1 win at the end of May is just that. If you watched how crisply the Yankees played in all facets of the game, however, it was easy to see (on Friday night at least) they were the better team, who saved their best for the biggest moment of a season that is no longer young.