Rivals in Exile: Sweeps Week

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in Rochester, New York. The similarities pretty much end there.

Ben was born in Springfield, Massachusetts; Larry’s from Long Island. Ben’s not particularly into politics or religion; Larry will talk endlessly about both — whether you’re interested or not. Ben is easy-going; Larry throws furniture.

But more than anything else, they are defined by the teams they love. Larry is a proud citizen of the Yankees’ Evil Empire, while Ben lives and dies with the Red Sox. With two great writers like this living in the same city, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

New York Yankees: 50-29
Boston Red Sox: 43-37

Ben Jacobs: Before the season began, we talked about how great the Red Sox and Yankees were going to be this year and we even wondered whether or not the presence of the wild card would spoil an epic pennant race between two 100-plus win teams.

Before the first day of July ended, the Yankees clinched the AL East and the Red Sox were left to hope that they didn’t fall too far behind in the race for that wild card spot.

You think I’m joking around? I’m not.

I know the Red Sox are obviously still mathematically alive (New York’s magic number is 77 as of Friday morning) and I know larger deficits have been erased in less time than the Red Sox have left, but the Yankees are your 2004 AL East Champions. There’s not going to be a miracle comeback this season, that’s just a fact.

After Wednesday night’s loss, one of my co-workers — a Yankees fan — tried to convince me that the race wasn’t over yet by saying that he remembers 1978 and 1986 and that nothing’s ever for sure until the last out of the clinching game is recorded.

Well, that’s just great. Why don’t you try to boost my optimism by pointing out the two biggest collapses in my favorite team’s history? I’ll just curl up in a ball on the ground in case you want to kick me a couple times too.

Even in our discussion last week, you wouldn’t let me worry too loudly, saying that there was no way Boston was going to get swept at Yankee Stadium. Well, I’ve been wrong before, too.

Tuesday’s loss I could handle. The Yankees had their best starter (Javier Vazquez) going against Boston’s worst starter (Derek Lowe). The Red Sox defense made things uglier than they needed to be, but Boston was not a good bet to win that game regardless.

They should definitely have won on Wednesday, though. Tim Wakefield pitched a heck of a ballgame and David Ortiz gave them a 2-0 lead through six innings. Then, the Red Sox loaded the bases with nobody out in the seventh inning and couldn’t score.

Right on cue, an error lets the Yankees tie the game in the seventh, New York scores two more in the eighth and Mariano Rivera does his job in the ninth. Suddenly, the Red Sox need Pedro Martinez to keep them from getting swept, rather than having him as a weapon with which to win the series.

And as for that game on Thursday, well, it was a classic, there’s no doubt about that. It had everything except an appearance by Nomar Garciaparra. Six weeks ago, I was laughing about the demise of Derek Jeter and eagerly awaiting Nomar’s return. Now, Nomar’s the one who looks washed up and Jeter’s once again made a case for himself as Mr. Clutch, Mr. Intangibles, Mr. Yankee.

Jeter sends himself to the hospital with one of the great defensive plays ever, and Garciaparra can’t even get off the bench after making three errors in two days. In the “How To” book on earning a hefty free agent contract, Garciaparra’s 2004 season will headline the chapter on what to avoid doing.

In all seriousness, how did it get to this?

I know Nomar and Trot missed two months apiece with injuries, but this was supposed to be the year for the Red Sox to make their run. They certainly haven’t been eliminated from playoff contention yet, but these Red Sox don’t look capable of more than a cane-added limp at the moment, and that’s not going to be enough to outlast the other teams that want to taste October.

Boston has Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, who have been a disappointment despite the fact that they’re a combined 18-7 with a 3.50 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 205 strikeouts in 221.1 innings. The Red Sox have Keith Foulke, who has a 1.09 ERA and 0.90 WHIP at the back of the bullpen.

On offense, they have David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, who are making a case for themselves as the best 3-4 duo around. After Thursday night, they are hitting a combined .325/.399/.636 with 43 home runs and 137 RBIs in 594 at-bats this season.

Yet despite having two great pitchers, two great hitters, a great closer and a host of more-than-suitable players to fill out the rest of the roster, the Red Sox are 42-35, 8.5 games behind the Yankees in the AL East, 2 games behind Oakland in the wild card race and just 3.5 games ahead of Tampa Bay.

It seemed like such a sure thing three months ago. One more run with this group before mass free agency forced the Red Sox to make some tough decisions on who should stay and who should go. Instead, it’s now time to worry. It must be nice to not know what that word means, Larry.

Larry Mahnken: Yeah, that’s right, Ben. We Yankee fans don’t know what it means to worry, are never sick or hungry, and our weekends are always six days long.

Get over it. They lost, and they lost in excruciating fashion, but it happens. 8½ games is a large margin, but hardly an insurmountable one, and the Yankees are a team that could sustain some serious injuries and come back to Boston.

Besides, who the heck cares about the division title? If Boston has to “settle” for the Wild Card, then what? They don’t get to have home field advantage in either of the first two rounds — but then the teams with that advantage last year were 2-5 in last year’s playoffs!

But, the 1942 Cardinals, ’69 Mets and ’89 Blue Jays were 8 games out of first place after July 1st, the 1935 Cubs and ’79 Reds were 8½ games back, the 2001 A’s were 8½ out of the Wild Card, The ’73 Reds and ’78 Yankees were 9 back, the ’64 Cardinals were 9½ back, the ’73 Mets were 11 back, and in 1914 the Braves were 12½ games out — in last place in an eight team league. All of these teams overcame that deficit to make the playoffs, and in 1949 the Red Sox overcame a 9 game deficit after July 1st to go into Yankee Stadium for the last two games needing only one win to clinch the pennant. Of course, they didn’t, but the point remains the same: if those other teams can overcome a deficit this large — many of them nowhere near as talented as this Red Sox team — then Boston can overcome it.

I don’t think they will, of course, but to throw in the towel this early, especially when the Red Sox have nine more games against the Yankees … well, this is the reason why lazy journalists like Dan Shaughnessy can hold down jobs.

For the Yankees, this lead allows them to sustain the loss of Giambi to parasites — perhaps for another DL stint. They can wait out Kevin Brown, then don’t have to trade for a starting pitcher, and they can give the back of their bullpen some much-needed rest.

It isn’t over, as much as I’d like it to be. Feel free to sulk, but don’t expect any pity from me.

BJ: I don’t expect any pity from you, but neither do I expect you to pretend I was talking about life in general when I said you don’t have to worry. Obviously, everybody has troubles in life, but to pretend Yankee fans haven’t had it pretty damn nice the last decade is just silly.

You probably haven’t seriously had to worry about making the playoffs since 1995 or, maybe, 1996. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have only made the playoffs three times since 1996, and it hasn’t always been a sure thing even then.

And don’t play the Dan Shaughnessy card on me, either. Shaughnessy is a hack who doesn’t care about anything besides getting people to read his columns, and he seems to have to decided that the best way to do that is to make sure they’re always riled up.

I don’t believe in any curses (when three teams haven’t won a World Series since before 1920, it’s hard to believe they’re all cursed), but I’d like to have a nice and easy summer at some point in my life. Maybe I care about the Red Sox too much, but I get really angry when they do crap like they’ve done this week.

And don’t pretend that you’d be just as happy being in the Red Sox position right now because the wild card is just as good as the division title. The Yankees pretty much have a playoff spot locked up. Even if the Red Sox get hot and win the AL East, the Yankees will still take the wild card unless they completely fall apart.

For the Red Sox, however, it’s almost certainly wild card or bust at this point. You named off 12 teams that have overcome big deficits in the standings (and one of those teams didn’t even make the playoffs). I don’t know if you found every instance of a big comeback, but 12 in more than 100 years isn’t a good percentage. I’m not throwing in the towel on the season, but you’ll excuse me if I don’t hold my breath for the division title.

And while I won’t be mad if they have to settle for the wild card, it’s no sure thing that they’ll be able to settle for it. Oakland, Texas, Anaheim, Chicago, Minnesota and even Tampa Bay are all right around Boston in the standings. Two of those teams will win division titles, and the other four will be trying to prevent Boston from winning the wild card.

I think the Red Sox have a better club than all six of those teams, but it hasn’t really shown up in the standings so far. The Red Sox haven’t given themselves any margin for error in the wild card race, and anything can happen in three months.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather have the Red Sox do this every year than do what the Brewers and Pirates and other crappy teams do. But it seemed like things were going to go smoothly for the Red Sox this year, for once, and now they’ve hit some very choppy waters.

I’m not abandoning the ship, but I am getting a little seasick and I don’t see the sun on the horizon yet.

LM: Well, maybe you can see a little sunlight if you check out what happened to the Yankees over the weekend — getting swept by the Mets. Boston lost two of three themselves, but they still gained a game in three days, and if they keep doing that, they’ll catch the Yankees before August. The Yankees are hurting, they have been getting lousy pitching, and they’re overdue for a slump. The way to come back from a large deficit in the standings is the same way you come back in a game: a little bit at a time. If Boston gains three games in July, three games in August, three games in September …

You can’t tell me that’s not a plausible outcome.

It’s just not going to end that easily for the Yankees. They had the same 7½ game lead on Boston last year — on August 22. 16 days later, that lead was 1½ games, even with the Yankees having taken two of three at Fenway. The Yankees, of course, pulled away again, but the point remains the same: 7½ games is too big a margin to be afraid of losing, but too small a margin to feel assured of winning. Boston has 46 more games left than they did last year to make up this deficit.

When Boston swept the Yankees in April, it may have been the best thing that could have happened to the Bombers. They had coasted through the first month of the season, apparently assuming that victories would come to them in time, and that their lackluster results were acceptable. The Sweep woke them up, made the realize that they had to go all-out if they didn’t want to be playing golf in October.

And perhaps for the Red Sox, it lulled them into thinking that they could take the Yankees without any problems. With Nomar and Nixon out, they had manhandled New York — what challenge would the Yanks provide when those two returned?

So far, the second sweep hasn’t had the positive effect on the Red Sox that it may have had on the Yankees, but this weekend’s sweep at Shea might indicate that the Yankees have been suckered into thinking they can sleepwalk into the playoffs. Now’s not the time to coast, now’s the time to go for the kill. The next three weeks through the penultimate Fenway series may well be the most crucial of the season.

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