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Bob Ryan

Right now, team is fourth-rate

If there is any set of fans who should know, it's the people right here in New England, where professional baseball has been a passion for more than 130 years.

Baseball is not like the other sports. More than basketball, more than hockey, and surely more than football, the central reality of baseball is very simple: It's a long, long season.

It takes six tedious months and 162 (often far too lengthy) games for each season's story to unfold. The dynamics of April are not the dynamics of September. Often, it's not whom you play that matters as much as when you play them. A fast start is nice, but that's all it is - a start.

Yogi said it best. It ain't over till it's over.

Can't we trace pretty much all of it back to Yogi Berra? Wasn't it Yogi who pointed out that "If you ain't got a bullpen, you ain't got nuthin' "? After watching games this past week, who among us would dispute that notion?

This thing is not, of course, working out the way people around here hoped it would, which is not the same as saying it is not working out the way people around here thought it would. Did anyone honestly believe back in May that the Yankees, then tied for last in the American League East with Tampa Bay, 14 1/2 games behind the Red Sox, would actually remain there? If that be the case, please step into my office. I have a nice land deal in the Florida Panhandle we can discuss.

Really. It just doesn't work that way.

It simply stood to reason that the Red Sox were going to be challenged by the Yankees. The issue earlier in the season wasn't the Red Sox. It was the Yankees. At a point when the Red Sox were playing nice baseball, the Yankees were struggling for a variety of reasons. The Red Sox were 20-8 in May. The Yankees were 13-15. The Red Sox had no control over what the Yankees were doing.

Going back a ways, remember the glorious back-to-back-to-back-to-backs? Those homers were off Chase Wright. Should the Red Sox meet up with the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, you can be sure they won't be taking any hacks off Chase Wright.

Things happen over the long haul in baseball. Players get hot. Forty-year-old pitchers get hurt. Hideki Okajimas experience unforeseen and inexplicable bouts of greatness. Veterans go south overnight. Joba Chamberlains and Clay Buchholzes materialize. Calls do or don't go your way. Balls that seem to stay fair for a month go foul in the next month. The wind blows in. The wind blows out.

Oblique muscles decide to act up.

And sometimes the other guy is pretty good, too.

Give Toronto credit. Dustin McGowan, A.J. Burnett, and Jesse Litsch have just pitched three classy ballgames. The first two guys simply have tremendous arms and the Litsch kid is a gamer type, and they all came up big. It was a reminder of what Toronto could have been, and may be next year. The Blue Jays did so against a Red Sox team playing without Manny Ramírez, Kevin Youkilis, and Coco Crisp, but that's just the way it goes. Other teams have to play without people more often than not. You look around, you don't see too many Cal Ripkens.

It's times like this when you start thinking about the games that got away, but what team can't do that? Sure, if A-Rod didn't hit that home run off Jonathan Papelbon with two outs in the ninth on that Sunday night in June, everything might have been different. You always have those what-ifs. Just be grateful Ramon Hernandez didn't catch that popup on Mother's Day.

So here they are, stumbling and wheezing their way to the finish line. Thanks to the Tigers, they will make the playoffs. If they don't hold on against the Yankees, there will be the predictable weeping and wailing, and I do feel sorry in advance for those of you who'll have to listen to the cackling from that guy in your office who came up from Queens or Joisey to go to BU and then decided to stick around. You'll get over it. Ask him what he was thinking after the 19-8 game. Sure, it will sting because it's the Yankees, but it doesn't really matter. Were the 2004 Red Sox champions of the AL East? The answer to that would be no.

But the truth is, there is no great reason to feel optimistic about the chances of the 2007 Red Sox. Who gets the ball in Game 2 of the AL Division Series? What if the bullpen doesn't snap out of it? What if Manny never Mannys? Will they manufacture at least one run? Does Papi have some late-inning mojo in reserve? Will J.D. do anything? Ever?

Can they hit really good pitching?

Let's examine the AL contenders.

1. Cleveland. Grady Sizemore can hurt you. Casey Blake can hurt you. Jhonny Peralta can hurt you. Travis Hafner can hurt you. Victor Martinez can absolutely abuse you. They're not the Yankees, but they're all heating up at the same time. That's a lot of guys you don't want to see up, if you know what I mean.

What scares me is what C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona can do to your batters. The 6-foot-7-inch, 290-pound Sabathia is at the peak of his game, and Carmona has games in which he is laughably unhittable. Paul Byrd and his 1937 windup could easily produce six or seven solid innings in a playoff setting. And suddenly the Indians have great setup people, led by former Red Sox farmhand infielder Rafael Betancourt (1.46 with 70 strikeouts and - gulp - 9 walks). How Joe Borowski has managed to close 42 games in 48 opportunities, given that he has a 5.04 ERA and has allowed 70 hits in 60 2/3 innings (Papelbon has allowed 29 hits in 55 innings), may be baseball's greatest supernatural mystery, but that is what he's done.

Recent history teaches us that two great starters, excellent setup people, and a closer who can close are all you need.

2. New York The lineup is sometimes ridiculous, even without Jason Giambi. Did you know that Jorge Posada has an OPS of .972? The reason they have not won since 2000 is that their starting pitchers have failed them in the playoffs. Period. End of story. Are Pettitte, Wang, Clemens, and Mussina good enough? If they are, there is no reason the Yankees can't win.

3. Orange County American League Baseball Representative They're the chic team of the moment. By the way, hate to tell you that Orlando Cabrera has driven in 83 runs. Now here's a team that can manufacture a run. And assuming his right triceps tendinitis doesn't hamper him, Vladimir Guerrero is the flat-out scariest all-around hitter in the AL.

But do John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, and Jered Weaver really frighten anybody? Give me C.C. and Dr. Faustus.

Mike Scioscia's the best manager in the derby, however. That's a fact.

4. Your Sawx Simply put, I fear that their best baseball is behind them, that what you saw as they were getting out to that 36-16 record and that big spread over the You-Know-Whos was the best baseball they could produce. Sure, if they could have started the playoffs in June when they were getting quality start after quality start and Okey-Dokey was untouchable and Youkilis was on base every five seconds and a few other things, they would have won. Then.

But this is now. Is this a team that inspires confidence?

Yeah, they could get lucky. Didn't the 83-79 Cardinals win last year?

Here's a better bet: Go, Pats.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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