boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
BOB RYAN

AL East is shaping up as a race, but not a runaway

We've passed the one-third point in the 2005 baseball season. Do you, like me, have the feeling that nothing important has happened yet, at least as far as the American League East is concerned?

I speak, of course, from a haughty New York/New England point of view. Down there in the Land of Crabcakes and pinched vowels -- I can never get enough of a good Balmer accent -- people undoubtedly feel it's been a totally uplifting two-plus months. Their Baltimore Orioles are asserting themselves in this division for the first time since 1997. The only way to describe the last seven seasons is Grim and Grimmer. Since winning the division and defeating the Mariners in the '97 ALDS, the Orioles have not been closer than third place, and they have four times finished 30 or more games behind the division-leading Yankees. Attendance last year dropped very close to a million fewer than the 1997 tally of 3,711,132.

Folks up Toronto way are likewise feeling a lot better about their ball club than they have in years. The Jays, who had racked up annual attendances in excess of a once-unimaginable 4 million while winning back-to-back championships in 1992-93, had slipped dramatically, both on the field and at the box office, as, starting in 1998, the Yankees and Red Sox began mnopolizing the division. But the Jays have some life, leading the Yankees by 1 1/2 games this morning and trailing the Sox by the same number. And, oh, if only Roy Halladay could pitch every day, or at least every other day.

So these AL East punching bags are finally showing some resistance to the tyranny that's been imposed on them by the Athens and Sparta of baseball (which being which is totally dependent on one's point of view) for lo these many years. The end result could be an honest-to-God multi-team race, something we haven't had in this division since . . . since . . . since I'd have to say 1988, when the Tigers, Blue Jays, Brewers, and Yankees finished within 3 1/2 games of the first-place Red Sox.

Where, then, are our lads in all this? We know where they are in the standings, but where are they, physically and emotionally? Is there any reason to believe they could again have the right stuff? I'm not talking about winning the World Series again. That's getting waaaay ahead of the story. No, I'm talking about being good enough to win the division for the first time since 1995, which has to be the goal since it would be foolish to think in terms of being the wild card for the fifth time since winning their last division championship 15 years ago. This year, the AL wild card is likely to come from the Central for the first time, though it is not inconceivable that it could be the Angels or Rangers.

With all due respect to the Orioles, the AL East certainly looks to be available. The Orioles have clearly been the best team thus far, but when ''thus far" is only the first week in June, we are talking about a long, unfinished novel. Even without Javy Lopez and the underrated Luis Matos, Lee Mazzilli can write a lot of formidable names down for a batting order, starting with the man who may be the very best AL hitter of them all. I mean, is there any contemporary American League player you'd less want to see come up against your team in a big situation than Miguel Tejada (Big Papi excepted, of course)? Not too long ago, we were all rhapsodizing about the Big Three shortstops: A-Rod, Derek, and Nomah. But who's now better than Tejada, who is averaging 123 runs batted during the last five seasons, who is on pace to knock in 135 this year, and who is also an excellent fielder?

The Orioles have many more professional hitters in the lineup to complement Tejada, so hitting is not the issue. But I think we are within our rights to question the starting pitching.

Thus far, the quintet of Rodrigo Lopez, Bruce Chen, Sidney Ponson, Daniel Cabrera, and the currently disabled Erik Bedard have done the job. But what about when the weather gets really hot and the games really matter? Lopez, Bedard, and Cabrera have never started so much as one big money game in their major league careers. Chen, the vagabond's vagabond (eight teams since 2000, including the Red Sox), has doubtless started very few. Ponson is skilled but highly unreliable, as the Giants found out when they rented him in '03. Lopez, a Red Sox nemesis, is not so spellbinding against everyone else. Jorge Julio and B.J. Ryan are a formidable eighth/ninth-inning duo, but that doesn't matter much when you're trailing, 8-2, after seven.

I'm not saying these starters won't do the job. But no one knows for sure.

Toronto? The Jays seem to know how to beat the Red Sox, and they are a pain in the butt to play, and Halladay is a beast out there, but we need to see a little more before we elevate them to the status of pennant contender. Even their general manager, Worcester's own J.P. Ricciardi, thinks they are at least a year away. Sounds reasonable to me.

What about the Steinbrennerarians? I think we will know by the All-Star Game. I think we will know whether their problems are solvable or whether this is 1965 revisited.

For the less historically inclined among you, 1965 was the year when the Yankees were evicted from their suite on baseball's Mount Olympus and plunged back into the world of cold-water flats. After winning their fifth straight American League pennant in 1964 with a 99-63 record, the Yankees went off the cliff in '65, dropping to 77-85 and finishing 25 games behind the pennant-winning Twins. Right into August, people assumed the Yankees would straighten themselves out, but they never did. A year later they plopped into 10th, and last, place.

Things won't quite get that bad, but any team dependent on so many aging starting pitchers and has a left fielder (Tony Womack) with an on-base percentage of .296 and a slugging percentage of .284 has some issues, and that's without even mentioning the Giambi fiasco. It wouldn't shock me if people are asking the same questions about the Yankees on Labor Day they're asking now.

That leaves the defending champions, who, for all their blown leads and men left on base and subpar individual offensive performances, are still hanging around near the top of the division. Curt Schilling could come galloping in on his white horse following the All-Star Game. But even if he doesn't, Theo Epstein and his number-crunching front office Kiddie Korps seem to have assembled enough suitable starting pitching depth to get the job done. And is it not reasonable to assume that when it's all said and done, Manny will have his traditional .310-35-1something-or-other?

Go ahead. I dare anyone to make a better case for any of the other teams than can be made for Boston. Somebody flawed is going to win this division. I'll bet the smart, neutral, emotionally detached money is already on the Sox.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives