The jugular is not in play.
Or, so I’ve been told by members of a Red Sox fan base that is increasingly panicky the more their team's AL East lead grows.
It’s not over. You sound foolish.
You’re gonna curse them.
Now I know who to blame.
It’s only May!!!!
It’s true. While the word, "over" never graced this space in reference to anything other than praying it would apply to the disaster that is Jack Bauer’s latest adventure, perhaps we were too bold about this whole AL East deal. After all, the Red Sox continue to just pad their divisional lead, which is now up to 10½ games, and the only thing many of their loyal fans can do is wonder when the roof will come caving in. The Yankees, meanwhile, have been reeling much of the season, but last night's win over the Mets must mean the start of a big-time run, right?
Remember what happened in 1978
Right. What does it say about the state of Red Sox fans that during this 30-13 start to kick off what’s turning out to be a most enjoyable 2007, 1978 is the year most referenced and not 2004? Not to ignore a keen appreciation of local baseball history, but, and I apologize if this is a news flash, history doesn't repeat itself. Unless, of course, you are either Josh or Dr. Sam Beckett.
Surely, there are plenty of Red Sox fans who are enjoying the moment, looking forward to the dog days of the season in lieu of dreading their arrival. Why shouldn't they? Their team is an MLB-best 30-13 with a three-game series against the Yankees on tap for this week in the Bronx. And despite the Chicken Little attitude that filters into the ol' Inbox on a daily basis, it’s nice to think these folks are the majority of a fan base drowning in positivity.
That’s not to encourage everyone to bury the competition. Teams can come back from deficits like the Yankees have put themselves in, for sure. But when one team looks this good, and the other so poor, the odds dwindle.
Winners of just three of their last 10, the Yankees face a difficult task of making an early, yet pivotal run against a team that has lost back-to-back games just twice this season, and hasn't done so in a month. New York, meanwhile, last won consecutive games May 8-9, almost two weeks ago.
Aside from David Ortiz, who yesterday said, "It's their problem right now," about playing the Yankees this week, the Red Sox were rather nonchalant about heading to the Bronx, just another AL East opponent on tap. Writes the New York Post’s Mike Puma, “In the same vein as Jason Varitek's famous line to Alex Rodriguez three years ago – ‘We don't throw at .260 hitters’ - maybe the Red Sox don't discuss sub-.500 opponents."
To put it succinctly, if the Yankees do indeed eventually take over Boston’s lead at some point this season, it will likely equal the greatest collapse by a team in Red Sox history, the aforementioned 1978 squad, which choked down the stretch and found themselves the butt of a Bucky Dent pop fly for years to come. For some, this expectation remains the norm, and not the exception, which is, frankly, ludicrous.
If the Yankees can magically fix their pitching ailments and turn the Red Sox into the 2006 injury-riddled version, then sure, they have as much of a chance as the Blue Jays at catching Boston. We are, after all, just past the quarter-mark of the season, and, as we’ve learned time and again, [insert length of baseball season cliché here].
Which is why this week’s series means much of nothing in the grand ol’ scheme of things. With a sweep, the Yankees can at least consider themselves within striking distance, and spark instant panic in the streets of the Back Bay. With a Boston sweep, the Yankees would be 13½ games off the lead, and would watch their AL East record seep to 3-14.
Those are as astounding numbers as any. 3-14. The Yankees have beaten the Red Sox once. The Orioles, once. The Devil Rays, once. By contrast, the Red Sox are 14-5 against their divisional brethren, which is a big part of the reason they enjoy a double-digit lead.
When Roger Clemens announced he was rejoining the Yankees, Boston’s lead was 5½ games. The Red Sox have gone 10-3 since losing out on their former ace, but the tailspin has continued for the Bombers (5-8). Clemens wanted us to believe one stipulation for signing with New York -- as if $28 million prorated weren't enough -- was that Joe Torre would be in the dugout once he got there. Well, if Boston invades New York this week and continues its recent run, will that indeed be the case come Thursday?
Would the Yankees be talking about voiding Jason Giambi’s contract if he were producing the way they had expected him to? And will pieces be sold off in an expensive fire sale if this continues, paving the way for the future Yankees to take hold much earlier than anticipated? Jorge Posada. Alex Rodriguez. Giambi. Bobby Abreu. Would it be surprising to see each of them playing elsewhere later this summer?
How much are the Yankees willing to take before either trading off pieces or cleaning house? It’s been nothing but a steady decline in New York since winning the 2000 World Series. They made it there in ’01, and ’03, losing both times, suffered the embarrassing 0-3 collapse at the hands of the Red Sox in '04, and haven’t made it out of the ALDS since.
There have been poor starts in New York before, but nothing like the Yankees are limping through right now, a stretch that might be bearable if the Red Sox weren’t off to a stunning start. Consider that even if the Yankees were 26-16, 10 games over .500, they’d still be 4½ back. Going into tonight’s game, they are closer to the last-place Royals in the wild card standings than they are to the Red Sox in the AL East standings.
It still remains the greatest rivalry in the game, but this week is not about any animosity that might exist between the two teams. It is about the Yankees’ survival. It is about staying afloat, and perhaps saving the jobs of their manager and general manager. It is about not fading into obscurity as the Mets steal the Manhattan headlines. It is about giving their fan base a glimmer of hope that they can be a playoff contender. For now, only Tampa, Texas, and Kansas City have fewer wins in the AL than George Steinbrenner’s $200 million investment.
“If the Yankees win two or all three games against their division rivals, it will not come close to making up their sizeable deficit,” writes the Newark Star-Ledger’s Lisa Kennelly. “But it would definitely make a statement that the Yankees are not out of the fight despite their sub-.500 record, and could be a catalyst for the turnaround that Torre insists is just around the corner.”
For the Red Sox, it’s business as usual. And yet, there remain those who would try to convince you that it is they who have the burdens to weigh this week. We are apparently obliged to say it: It's not over. But nor has either team shown any reason to not allow that thought to become more prevalent as the games tick away.