If there was one aspect of last night's 16-0 trouncing the Yankees suffered at the hands of the Tigers that didn't have Red Sox fans filled with glee, it was that their team won't have the chance to face Mike Mussina this week.
The lead is now eight games, in case you missed it, in the American League East, where the Red Sox are certainly en route to capturing their first division crown since the post-strike 1995 squad (unless you count Boston's wild card tie atop the standings in 2005). Mussina was 19-9 that season for the Orioles, which only makes '95 seem even more distant.
If you had to choose a symbol representing the reasons why the Yankees are effectively out of the hunt for their 10th straight AL East crown -- even with a three-game set on tap for this week vs. the Red Sox in the Bronx -- Mussina is it, an aging player of former glory whom the New York Post's George King calls "a $23 million pair of cement shoes dragging down their October hopes." Ouch.
AL East hope, yes. October? Not quite yet.
Which is why, for all the talk today about how suddenly insignificant this series is, the reality is that it still means much for both teams. It is Boston's shot at a knockout punch in the division, where one win even might guarantee them celebration down the road, barring an epic collapse. But it's also the Red Sox' first head-to-head chance in three months to help ensure their rivals don't sneak in via the wild card either.
There is both hope and despair for the Yankees this week, writes Bob Klapisch of the Bergen Record, but it seems to be the hope that is the most fleeting. "It's been a long time since the Yankees played intelligent, well-pitched, defense-oriented baseball. Talk about distant memories. Today's home run orgies look great on 'SportsCenter,' but, on their own, they can make for a lonely October. The Yankees are on the verge of learning that the lesson the hard way."
Too much punch in the lineup, not enough juice on the mound, where Andy Pettitte gives New York its best shot at kicking things off right tonight, going for his sixth straight win. On Wednesday, the Sox get their first look at old friend Roger Clemens since he was rubbing the mug of Babe Ruth with champagne that fateful 2003 evening in the Bronx. The Sox are hitting .315 against Game 3 starter Chien-Ming Wang, who's 3-1 this month, albeit with a 5.46 ERA.
Overall, New York's pitching staff has a 5.42 ERA for August, which signifies not only the woes of Mussina (8.87 for the month), but struggling inferior pieces such as Sean Henn (15.43) and Ron Villone (7.59), as well as Clemens, who despite being lumped into the team's best three chances this week, has been hit to the tune of a 5.79 ERA this month. Of all starters not named Mussina, the Rocket has a team-high 1.66 WHIP in August, and the opposition is hitting .333 against him.
For the sake of comparison, Daisuke Matsuzaka's ERA for the month is 3.81, Beckett's is 2.25, and even Schilling, who has struggled here and there since his return, is at 3.75. Boston's team ERA for August: 3.62. That's third-best in the majors for the season's penultimate month. The Yankees' 5.42 is 24th out of 30 teams.
Based on the numbers and deficit, it's remarkable how much attention this series is getting nationwide, even if it is Red Sox-Yankees. Even as New York was getting smoked last night, somewhere around 10-0, ESPN2 viewers were still inundated with promos for Wednesday night's game, which will be carried on the network. In analyzing the AL West, ESPN's Jim Caple writes, "Excuse us while we interrupt the latest apocalyptic Yankees-Red Sox hype to present an actual division race where the teams are -- gasp! -- within eight games of each other."
The AL West is indeed a race, and wouldn't you know, the Mariners and Angels face off this week, too, with Seattle -- the team the Yankees are chasing for the wild card -- facing a three-game deficit. The AL Central is still a race, the Tigers 2½ games behind Cleveland. The NL Central is still a race. The NL West is still a race. Both wild cards are indeed up for grabs.
The AL East, in reality, is not.
Realistically, Red Sox fans can't expect a sweep, not with Boston going up against New York's top trio of hurlers. But even with a lonely win with their own three best going, the Sox can effectively end any threat of the Yankees taking the division. Even with another series set for Fenway in a matter of weeks, the weight of concern that Red Sox fans have professed all along, with the Yankees lurking in the distance, has a chance to be lifted this week
As for October, well that's a story yet to be written. And the more the Red Sox beat up on the Yankees this week, the more of a chance they will have at avoiding them come autumn.