Rivals in Exile: Back From The Brinkby Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken
August 23, 2004
Ben Jacobs: Don't look now, but the Red Sox are catching up. Through Friday night Yankees have played 121 games, and they lead the Red Sox by 7.5 games in the standings. In 1978, when the Yankees had played 121 games, they trailed the Red Sox by 7.5 games in the standings.
I still obviously think the Yankees will win the division, but it would be nice if the six games between the Red Sox and Yankees in September had some importance, just like the seven games between the two teams in September of 1978 had some importance.
The biggest key for the Red Sox, however, is that they're finally winning games. I said that I wanted them to go 18-8 in the 26-game stretch where they only played Toronto, Tampa Bay, Detroit and the White Sox. So far, they're 12-5 in that stretch. If they can win six of those final nine games, they'll hit my desired record exactly.
Unfortunately, the Rangers don't seem to realize that they're not as good as the Red Sox. They've won seven games in a row and are tied with the Red Sox atop the wild card standings. And the Angels aren't going anywhere either, just a game behind the two teams. Oakland may also still factor into the wild card race, as the A's only lead the Rangers by half a game.
So, while I'm still confident that the Red Sox will make the playoffs, it's hard to be too sure when they are just one of three teams that are so close together for the wild card lead.
Right now, however, I'm not going to worry too much about that. Immediately after this 26-game stretch, the Red Sox have a series each against the Angels, Rangers and A's. Those nine games will tell a lot about who will win the wild card.
Right now, I'm just going to be happy that the Red Sox are finally playing the lesser teams the way they should be playing them. So far in August, they've scored 6.3 runs per game and allowed just 4.2 runs per game. They've won by at least four runs five times this month, which is good because games against bad teams shouldn't be close all the time.
I just have one question for you right now. I'm sure you're not worried about the Red Sox winning the division, but would you still be fine with the Angels sweeping the Yankees like you said you would last week? If the Angels sweep the Yankees and the Red Sox sweep the White Sox, all the sudden the lead is down to 5.5 games.
While that's still not very close for September, it would give a lot of people in New England a lot of optimism, and a lot of people in New York a lot of doubt.
Larry Mahnken: On the other hand, this might actually all backfire on the Red Sox; as they gain ground on the Yankees, the Angels stay within a game, and stay in position to perhaps pull past them for the Wild Card. For the Yankees and Red Sox, the goal is and should be to make the postseason, the division title and home field advantage are secondary goals, and not necessarily vitally important ones, either. There have been five Wild Card pennant winners, three Wild Card champions, and the '98 Yankees are the only team to win the World Series with the best record in baseball since 1989.
What happened last week -- the Yankees lost five of six, the only win coming after they had blown a 6-run lead -- was unquestionably bad for the Yankees, but it's fair to say that while it wasn't bad for the Red Sox, it wasn't that good for them either. They're much closer to New York than they were a week ago, but still not that close, and in no better position to actually make the postseason.
And while the losing has been frustrating, it's not particularly worrisome to me. The Yankees' starters are likely to pitch better than they have in the past week, the bullpen is almost certain to, and the lineup is even more certain to score more than they did. The Yanks are in a slump, no doubt, but that's the advantage of the big lead, they can slump and still have a sizable lead in the division, and for Home Field Advantage.
If the Yankees have another week where they win just one game, I'll get worried. At this point, if the Yankees limp to a .500 finish down the stretch, the Red Sox still need to win two thirds of their games to catch up. It's unlikely, but it could happen -- it has happened, it's happened with these two teams before. But that doesn't make it one bit more likely to happen again, so why would I worry myself about it?
My only concern right now is that the Yankees aren't winning, and I'm only concerned because it's not very fun to watch.
BJ: If the Red Sox had planned this out beforehand, I would say that it could backfire on them. Since it's not something they can control, it can't really backfire on them.
Since the Red Sox can't currently do anything about the fact that the three AL West teams refuse to lose right now, I can at least take some pleasure in the Yankees losing and their lead shrinking. It would have been nice if the Yankees had helped the Red Sox a little by beating the Angels and Rangers, but the Red Sox will have a chance to help themselves before too long.
Basically, the Red Sox have no reason to not make the playoffs. They comfortably lead the AL in runs scored and only three teams have allowed fewer runs. Their run differential of plus-119 is 42 runs better than Oakland's plus-77 (the Yankees are at plus-66).
In addition to the fact that they appear to have the most talent of any team in the AL, they also have a chance to knock off the teams they're chasing. They have one series left against each of the three AL West teams that could be wild card contenders and two series left against the Yankees.
If they win all three of those series against the AL West teams, they should win the wild card. If they win both series against the Yankees, they'll give themselves a chance to win the AL East. If they falter in those important series, then they simply don't deserve to be in the playoffs.
So, I'm excited that the Red Sox are playing as well as they have all season. I'm excited that they're still leading the wild card race. I'm excited that they're closing on the Yankees a little bit. And I'm very excited to see what might happen in September.
After three months of just being frustrated by the Red Sox, August has put the excitement back into the season. Unless you're a Yankees fan, all you can really ask from your favorite team is that they're exciting and give you a chance to root for them in October.
LM: This is somewhat similar to what happened last August -- the Yankees opened up a big lead, then the Red Sox got hot and made up most of it. They got within 1½ games before David Wells stopped them in September, and the Yankees pulled away after that to win the division.
But this isn't last year, and it's not 1978. Nor is it any other season that's happened in the past, it's 2004. The New York media is likely to go into panic mode any minute now, but if you had told me a month ago that the Yankees would have a 5½ game lead on August 23rd, I wouldn't have been anything but satisfied. If you had told me that the Red Sox would be this far back after The Sweep in April, I would have done a backflip. Boston's not breathing down the Yankees' neck -- yet. 5½ games is a sizable advantage.
What happened to the Yankees this past week is an aberration, but people are naturally inclined to let what's happened most recently affect their opinions more than what's happened over a longer period of time. But this past week does not undo the past four months, they're better than this.
They should look better this week, because things get easier from here down the stretch. They play the Indians and the Blue Jays, and while Cleveland appeared to have become a serious contender a couple of weeks back, they had a worse week than the Yankees, losing seven straight and falling completely out of contention. They won't be a pushover, of course, but they won't be the challenge Minnesota and Anaheim were.
For Boston, it gets a little tougher, having to play nine against the Angels, Rangers and Athletics as well as the six against the Yankees in the last couple of weeks. They can make up the last 5½ games against the Yankees alone, but they have to keep pace with them the rest of the way. They may, but the Yanks have an edge. It's like Boston's gotten within four in the ninth, but Rivera's on the mound. They could come back, but anyone expecting it is out of their mind.
I'm frustrated, but I'm not worried. But I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority.
BJ: Larry, I agree with pretty much everything you've said. If somebody had told me before the season the Red Sox would be 5½ games back at this point, I'd have been pissed.
The reason everybody's going crazy is that the Red Sox have chopped five games off that lead in a week. Red Sox Nation had essentially given up on the AL East. As you know, I officially gave up on the AL East on July 2. But when you see the deficit in front of you cut in half in the space of a week, well, that changes your mindset.
As Michael Corleone once said, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!"
I don't see this ending any more happily than that movie did, but they've still got a chance to pull me back in even more. While the Red Sox schedule does get tougher soon, they first have a series apiece against Toronto and Detroit. Meanwhile, the Yankees play Cleveland and Toronto. If the Red Sox and Yankees keep playing the way they both did this week, that lead could be down to 3½ games or so before Boston's schedule gets tougher.
If that happens, well, then I may start really believing in their chances to win the AL East. And while reaching the playoffs is more important than how you get there, it pisses me off that the Yankees have won the AL East six years in a row. I'd love to see that streak end because they blew a 10½-game lead.
Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are staff writers for The Hardball Times. Ben can be contacted here, Larry can be contacted here.