Cruise control

When we all reconvene tomorrow evening, as baseball returns from its annual pat on its own back, not much will have changed. The Red Sox will still have a 10-game lead on the rest of the AL East, the Indians and Tigers will still be battling it out for top spot in the Central, and Barry Bonds’s assault on Hank Aaron will continue to be a hot topic that nobody cares about.

The park will smell the same as it did last week, for better or worse. The rosters, save for a callup here or there, won’t look any different, and we’ll still have the same arguments in taverns, board rooms, and beaches, littered with baseball fans of all denominations as we hurtle toward the dog days of summer.


And yet, everything changes now.

With all due respect to April, May, and even you June, what with your wacky interleague business, it is now officially baseball season. More than half the games have been played, and what remains is an 11-week dash for everybody still involved with October glory on the line. It’s no longer a marathon, but the participants are just suiting up for the sprint.
It’s easy to look at the standings today and declare that the Red Sox, Indians, Tigers, Angels, Mets, Brewers, Padres, and Dodgers are all headed to the postseason. Except that last season, on this very date, you could say the Red Sox, leading the East, and the White Sox, leading the wild card race, would go. Texas was tied for the West lead. None even sniffed the equinox. It’s nearly impossible to believe, but two years ago the Washington Nationals led the NL East at the All-Star break, which has got to freak the heck out of Brewers fans.
Odds are then that someone’s going down. And Derek Jeter might very well think it’s the Red Sox.
“You don’t set your goals on second place,” Jeter told the New York Post prior to last night’s All-Star Game by the Bay. “Our goal is to play well and win the division. We know what we have to do. Everyone is aware of the fact of what we have to do in the second half.”
So, does he think the Yankees, heading into the second half 10 games behind the Red Sox, can mount a comeback for the ages?
“No question.”
Well, what else is the man going to say, “give away your tickets?” And let’s be clear, it’s not like the Red Sox have been charging toward the finish line. They just finished up a middling month of June, and a sense of complacency on the club is increasingly evident with a comfortable lead in the East.
Still, the Yankees had their chance, and they simply belched it away. Oh, sure, everyone likes to point out how the Yankees made up seven games on the Red Sox in a two-week span. Big deal. They’re now 10 games out, which means despite the Red Sox shuffling through the last five weeks, they’ve managed to pick up a few games. Indeed, put away the panic button.
In fact, perhaps the worst thing the Yankees could do is come out of the gate hot in the second half. Lest they think they actually have a shot and start dealing away prospects for a quick fix. The Daily News might even have the right idea, looking to 2009 in lieu of the second half of 2007.
Since their mid-June nine-game winning streak became a memory, the Yankees are an apropos 10-12, having morphed back into the team that they were the first two months of the season. Don’t tell Susan Waldmyn, but Roger Clemens — though more durable so far than some had foreseen — has been no savior. The Yanks may be mashing the ball as of late (a collective .317 batting average in July) and the pitching has certainly been better, but Mike Mussina’s durability has to be a major concern, as does what to expect from the guy behind Kei Igawa’s shades.
There has certainly been a more comfortable acknowledging of things being O-V-A in New England, where the very mention of October a few short weeks ago would get you a darting glare. Now at least it’s accepted as a topic of conversation, so long as you don’t start making playoff rotations. That could change too though, if things keep going down the same path. Since June 1, Boston is just 17-18. David Ortiz might need surgery after the season, Curt Schilling’s availability is in question, and J.D. Drew and Manny Ramirez’s power outages continue to baffle.
Thirty-five thousand have joined the support group for Julio Lugo, who — we’re calling it now — is going to have a monster second half. Well, at least he has to. Theo Epstein is most assuredly going to make a move or two at the deadline, and it’s going to be fascinating to witness just exactly what he does. Consider that your two biggest concerns are right field and shortstop, both locked into long-term deals, and you’ve got to get creative.
One through nine are pretty much set in the order, the bullpen could always use help, though it’s not showing signs that it needs it, and another starter would be a luxury. However, the bench is atrocious. Red Sox pinch-hitters are batting just .125, worst in the American League. Wily Mo Pena is 0 for 8 as a pinch hitter, although he is second on the team to Mike Lowell with seven RBIs in close and late situations. Alex Cora, surprisingly, has just one pinch hit. Eric Hinske has had his moments, but is he the guy you want up in the ninth inning of a tie game?
There are problems for certain, but how many can you truly whine about with a 10-game lead?
And what better way to start off the second half, when Toronto, Kansas City, and Chicago come to town for what is an 11-game homestand at Fenway, where Boston is 28-14? The Red Sox don’t play a team currently over .500 until July 23 (Cleveland). Only four teams remaining on the schedule are currently at .500 or better (Seattle, Cleveland, Minnesota, and the Angels) and of their remaining 75 games, 28 — more than one-third of the schedule — come against Tampa Bay and Baltimore, teams the Sox should beat handily.
And yes, if you’re still concerned about ‘dem Yankees, they face similar gifts in the second half (14 vs. Tampa, 13 vs. Baltimore), but do so 10 games out. Heck, the Yankees are 8½ games out of the wild card, needing to overtake the likes of Cleveland, Seattle, Minnesota, and Oakland for that honor. The Red Sox need to fly to the West Coast — yet again — but how about this two-week stretch for the Yankees: Aug. 16-19 vs. the Tigers, Aug. 20-22 at the Angels, Aug. 24-27 at the Tigers, and Aug. 28-30 vs. Boston. The Red Sox, over that stretch, host the Angels, and then get to fiddle around with the Rays and White Sox before heading out to the Bronx.
Still not convinced? OK, we’ll play. Figure this, if the Yankees pick up a game a week — not unheard of — they will overtake the Red Sox with one week remaining in the season. If Boston continues its plodding pace, playing a game-under-.500 the rest of the way, it would finish 90-72. The Yankees would need to go 48-29 to match them on the final game of the season. That might not sound unreasonable, but this is also a team that has been no better than three games above .500 at any point during the first half. To expect them to simply – poof — magically play .623 ball is unrealistic.
The Red Sox might have some concerns that need ironing out before that annual trading deadline, but the AL East race is indeed over.
No question.