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Remember the Yankees

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  August 5, 2011 10:38 AM

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"Theo kicked my --- in the offseason.”
- New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman during spring training

With 52 games to go, the American League East is now the purest of dead heats. Boston and New York both are in comfortable possession of a playoff spot, eight games ahead of even the American League West-leading Texas Rangers, perhaps on a collision course for the American League Championship Series.

Under the circumstances … edge, Yankees?

“I wouldn’t say [that],’’ Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said yesterday during an interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub.

“When Theo Epstein and his staff approached the winter dealing with areas of weakness on the roster, he was able to shore them up in the winter time. As I entered spring training, I still had question marks remaining. Andy Pettitte had retired. We failed in getting Cliff Lee. So the questions were, `Who was going to able to do what?’

“I had things that needed to be answered where they didn’t. And I think a lot of those question marks have turned into very positive answers for us as the season has played out, so I think we’ve closed the gap considerably.”

Horsefeathers.

They’ve closed the gap entirely.

At least on paper.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, Red Sox followers. When this season began, we all believed the Red Sox were the best team in the American League, if not all of baseball. Most of us conceded that if the Red Sox did not win the division this year, it would be a disappointment. The Red Sox appeared to have the far better team on paper, and most everyone, including Cashman, regarded the Red Sox as the team to beat in the AL.

Four months in, with essentially two-thirds of the season gone, there is no longer any gap between Boston and New York. The teams are running neck and neck. And while the division title generally means nothing, maybe it’s time for everyone to admit that the Yankees are right there with the Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies among the World Series favorites, no matter how much we all try to convince ourselves otherwise.

“I feel great about the big picture,” said Cashman. “I think we have a very tenacious team. We’re very deep. A lot of our low-flier acquisitions or chances we took on some guys have really paid off, thankfully. Our system is strong and have been very supportive.”

This has been especially true with regard to the pitching staff, of course, which is where the biggest discrepancy between these clubs was alleged to have been when the season began. As it has turned out, New York currently ranks second in the AL in team ERA, the Red Sox eighth. And before anyone suggests that the difference can be accounted for solely in the bullpen – the Yankees have the best bullpen ERA in the AL and the fewest relief losses – New York’s starting rotation (54 wins and a 3.63 ERA) has outpitched Boston’s (49 wins, 4.14 ERA).

Call it luck, if you choose – and it might be - but the simple truth is that Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova all have contributed as much or more to the Yankees than any Boston starters other than Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have contributed to the Red Sox. Add CC Sabathia and the Yankees suddenly appear to have the deeper rotation, at least while all of Boston is waiting for Colon and Garcia to go poof.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are now banking on John Lackey or Erik Bedard (or both) to stay healthy and elevate his level of performance, all before the end of September.

Here’s the bottom line: the Yankees were never the decrepit team that many Sox followers painted them out to be, and anyone with a smidgen of understanding about these two clubs never overlooked the Yankees in the first place.

All of that said, the Yankees have some things to prove this weekend, too. In head-to-head play against the Red Sox this year, New York has lost 8 of 9, including the last seven. During that seven-game stretch, Boston has outscored New York by 25 runs.The last time these teams met – at Yankee Stadium in June – the Red Sox scored 25 runs in the three-game series and the rivalry looked like a mismatch.

Nevertheless, the Red Sox have never led the division by more than three games this season, despite those questions in the New York rotation, despite injuries to Joba Chamberlain, Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano, among others. New York has been within striking distance all season long, and the Yankees will remain so into October.

By the end of this weekend, in fact, they might even be ahead.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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