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Red Sox-Yankees series has a different feel this time around

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  July 6, 2012 09:37 AM

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In the American League standings, at least, the Red Sox are closer to the Kansas City Royals than they are to the New York Yankees, so maybe we should refrain from calling this weekend a measuring stick. In Boston, after all, we are not setting our standards as high as we used to.

Eleven weeks have passed since Boston and New York last faced one another on the diamond, and we all remember the parting shot. The Red Sox raced to a 9-0 lead and held a 9-1 advantage entering the seventh inning at Fenway Park, all before the Yankees exploded for 14 runs - seven in the seventh, seven in the eighth - en route to a 15-9 win that proved the nadir of a Boston season that has generally been stuck in the mud.

The Red Sox dropped to 4-10 that day. The Yankees improved to 9-6. Since that time, New York has gone 40-26 while the Red Sox have gone 38-30, the gap between them now standing at 7 1/2 games.

And so, apparently, this is what it has come to in New England this summer, where we no longer talk about beating the Yankees so much as we talk about finishing with the fifth-best record in the American League. My, how the goals have changed. Since the start of the 2003 season, the Red Sox and Yankees have played precisely 168 times in the regular season, the series deadlocked at exactly 84-84. Add in the playoffs and the numbers change to 91-91 - seven postseason wins each - and further examination reveals even greater parity.

Each team defeated the other in an American League Championship Series. Each team went to two World Series. The Red Sox have won two titles while the Yankees have won one, and most any conversation about American League contenders included both.

Boston and New York. New York and Boston. Only the other two playoff spots in the American League were really up for grabs.

But now things are a little different, at least in Boston, where the Red Sox and their $190 million payroll are toting a 42-40 overall record, including just 31-33 against the American League. Injuries alone are not to blame. The Yankees currently are operating without C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Brett Gardner - don't forget Michael Pineda, too - and yet New York is still on pace for 98 victories.

The Yankees are still aiming for division titles and world championships. The Red Sox? They now seem focused on one of two AL wild-card spots in a modified playoff system that was supposed to be a deterrent to conservative thinking.

Just wondering: isn't that kind of defeatist conservative thinking partly how the Red Sox ended up in this mess in the first place? Entering last September, the Sox led the AL East by 1 1/2 games. They led the wild-card race by a stunning 9 1/2 games. There was seemingly little or no emphasis placed on winning the division because there was simply no real penalty for finishing second, a loophole the Red Sox exploited for years under general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona.

And yet now, less than a year later, people are talking about the second wild-card spot (and fifth-best record in the league) as if it were a major accomplishment. The concept of a one-game playoff in the postseason was intended to dissuade teams like the Red Sox and Yankees from lowering their standards, but the exact opposite has happened here at the roots of the American Revolution, where we once strived for the greatest things.

Apparently, we aim for relative mediocrity now. The Red Sox have the talent and payroll to be a division winner and a dominating force in the capitalistic, salary-cap-free world of major league baseball, but many of us have defined success for them at the top of the middle class.

So here's the question: how does a team drop that quickly that fast? The losses of Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard (essentially) hurt the Red Sox, to be sure, but overall the bullpen has been quite good. The Red Sox still rank third in the AL in runs scored. The only starting pitchers absent from the team that was on a 100-win pace last season are Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey, both of whom turned in 2011 performances that were entirely replaceable.

Certainly, the Sox have missed Jacoby Ellsbury, whose return is rapidly approaching. But the biggest reason for this team's play to this stage is unquestionably the relative underperformance of Boston's superstars, a collection of multimillionaires who are failing to varying degrees.

Time to get on Adrian Gonzalez, folks. The Red Sox are not paying him $22 million a year to hit singles. The Red Sox are 12-18 in games started by Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, both of whom are toting ERAs at or above the American League average. (The Sox aren't paying either to be middle-of-the-road starters.) Dustin Pedroia (now on the disabled list) obviously has been hurt, but his OPS has slipped to .726. And the Cinderella story that once was Mike Aviles has since gone the way of the frog. (Maybe he is just a part-time player after all.)

Without question, the Sox were beat up at the end of their recent West Coast trip, during which they played without third baseman Will Middlebrooks. But the Sox still had enough talent at their disposal to do better than 2-5 against utterly inept lineups like Seattle and Oakland, who rank in the bottom two of the American League in most every offensive category.

Obviously, these are transitional times at Fenway Park. That is hardly the point. Up until a week ago, the Red Sox looked like they were once again ready to clear a hurdle. They have since done another face-plant. The Red Sox cannot cure a season's worth of ills and issues in one condensed four-game series against the Yankees over the weekend, but they can certainly make themselves feel better and gain more than a touch of momentum entering the All-Star break.

Set your sights on the Yankees, folks.

We never should have taken our eyes off them in the first place.

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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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