Rivals in Exile: Down the Stretch

Ben Jacobs: Well, here we are with about three weeks left in the season and the Red Sox are 2½ games behind the Yankees. You’ll probably tell me that 2½ games is a lot to make up in three weeks, and you’re pretty much right.

However, you probably never thought it would get to this point. When the Red Sox cut the lead to 5½ games, and even when they knocked a couple more games off the lead, you kept telling me that it wasn’t a big deal because the Red Sox had the tougher schedule.

Not anymore.

Boston sliced through that “tougher” schedule like a hot knife through butter — to use an oldie but goodie — sweeping Anaheim, taking two of three from Texas and then demolishing Oakland in a sweep in which the Red Sox outscored the A’s 23-7.

Now, Boston only has six games left against winning teams — two three game sets with the Yankees. The Yankees have those same six games against the Red Sox, plus three games against Minnesota.

So, if Boston can win four of six against the Yankees head-to-head — not the simplest task, but not an unreasonable request either — all the Red Sox would have to do to win the AL East is make up a half-game against a slightly easier schedule.

As I said last week, I expect the Red Sox to win the division. I also expect the Red Sox to win 100 games — they need to go 15-7 to do so — which seemed like a pipe dream for most of the summer.

Whether or not the Red Sox do indeed reach either or both of those goals, it’s a nice time to be a Red Sox fan. The offense is on fire, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling are pitching like the dominant 1-2 punch everybody expected and the bullpen looks like it’s getting deeper just in time for the post-season with Scott Williamson returning and Ramiro Mendoza still pitching well.

The Yankees, meanwhile, have stuff to be worried about even though they had won five straight games before Friday night. New York doesn’t know when it will get Kevin Brown or Jason Giambi back. The Yankees have a great trio of relievers, but they’ve been worked hard all season and are beginning to show some cracks. And Javier Vazquez is becoming more of an enigma every time he takes the mound.

I obviously have no idea how everything is going to turn out, but I get the sense that I’m not in the minority having more confidence in the Red Sox to win the World Series than the Yankees. I don’t know the last time that was the case.

Larry Mahnken: There’s a strange feeling among some of the Yankee fans I’ve encountered that I’d have to describe as “arrogant paranoia”. They lack any confidence in the starting pitching, the relief pitching, and even the lineup, but then they express absolute certainty that they’ll win the World Series anyway, not because of their strength, but because the Red Sox and Cardinals will “choke”.

This is nonsense, of course, I don’t know how the Cardinals became chokers, but I guess you’ll believe whatever it takes to be certain in success and still be able to complain.

But the absurdity of the concept that Boston and St. Louis will necessarily choke is matched by the absurdity of the declarations that the Yankees are in serious trouble. They’re not, at least by anything having to do with them. They’re flawed, yes, but their pitching isn’t as bad as some claim, and their postseason chances aren’t as bleak as some want to think.

The Yankees haven’t collapsed, and they aren’t struggling. After the one lousy week last month where they lost 2 of 3 in Minnesota and were swept by the Angels, they’ve played .700 ball, better than should have been expected even considering the quality of their competition. They’ve lost 2 games in the standings in that time because Boston’s played .800 ball, which is even more impressive considering their competition.

But how can we hold what Boston’s doing against the Yankees? Why should six games a month ago count more than the 20 games since then, or the 117 games before that? The Yankees have the second best record in baseball, they’re now a mortal lock to make the playoffs, and they need only go 10-9 to win 100 games again… what the hell are people complaining about.

Their complaint is, of course, that the Yankees aren’t perfect. They’re really good, but not the best ever, and not even necessarily the best in baseball right now.

But their pitching is hardly as bad as advertised. They’ve had their problems, and Javier Vazquez is clearly struggling right now, but this rotation has enough to get it done in October.

The best rotation doesn’t always win, just like the best lineup doesn’t. The Diamondbacks won in 2001, but barely, and they were knocked out in the first round in 2002 without much difficulty. The A’s have had as good a 1-3 as anyone in the last five years, but have yet to advance past the first round. The Angels won the World Series in 2002 with a rotation that was almost certainly worse than the one the Yankees are throwing out there right now.

The best pitcher, performance-wise, the Yankees have right now is, stunningly, Orlando Hernandez. He’s not really pitching much better than he did his first time as a Yankee, his 2.49 ERA is low, but not a huge fluke — he really should have an ERA in the mid-3.00′s. I don’t think he’ll be nearly this dominant in October, but I don’t see any reason why he won’t be good in the playoffs. 2 or 3 runs in 6 or 7 innings should be enough to put the Yankees in position to win, and that’s likely what he’ll give them.

Mike Mussina has pitched so well recently that the Yankees won’t need El Duque to be their ace. Moose hasn’t been facing great teams, of course, but he’s been so good that it’s not enough reason to discount it. Clearly Mussina has struggled this season for whatever reason, but he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball since the early 90′s, I don’t see why he can’t still be. If Mussina and Hernandez are giving the Yankees strong, deep outings in October, they’ll be okay in the playoffs.

The worries come from Jon Lieber, who’s pitched hot and cold all year, and Javy Vazquez, who’s done the same. Vazquez is more capable of dominating than Lieber, but he also has worse mechanics, which I think has been and could continue to be his downfall. Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre hasn’t shown any ability to fix a pitchers’ mechanics in the past few years — even Lieber had to fix his own mechanical problems to get out of a recent slump — and I don’t have any faith that he’ll fix Javy. But Vazquez might be able to fight through it and be strong. I look at him in much the same light as you would view knuckleballer Tim Wakefield: he can dominate some days, and be horrible another.

The Wild Card, of course, is Brown. He’s broken his non-pitching hand, and three weeks is an optimistic ETA, but if he can catch a ball in October, he’ll pitch, and should give the Yankees solid outings.

I’m not worried because the Yankees have played very well lately, even though the competition has been generally weak. They’ve lost a little more ground, but they’re still in first place by a solid margin. Boston can get within a hair’s breadth by winning both series against the Yankees as things stand right now, but a series win next weekend by the Yankees could be utterly devastating to their playoff chances.

And besides, what’s the penalty for losing the division? A series against the A’s, who the Yankees are 7-2 against and Boston’s 8-1 versus. The winner gets Minnesota, 2-1 vs. the Yankees and 4-2 vs. Boston. The winner gets home-field advantage, of course, and the season records don’t necessarily prove anything except that getting the Twins instead of the A’s is hardly a big break.

I’m starting not to care that much. A repeat of last year’s ALCS looks likely, and whatever happens there makes whatever happens now a footnote.

BJ: Maybe if the Red Sox had won the last six AL East titles, I wouldn’t care about winning this one, as long as they made the playoffs. However, I can’t imagine being comfortable with them blowing a 10½ game lead to their biggest rivals.

Of course, with their loss on Sunday, the Red Sox made their task of winning the AL East more difficult. They probably have to win 4 of the 6 games against the Yankees now, and do really well in the rest of their games. Luckily, the Yankees failed to make it tremendously difficult by getting hammered by Kansas City on Monday. (By the way, remember when I said the loss of Brown could cost the Yankees a game, and that could cost the Yankees the division? Put a star next to Monday’s game.)

The key for me is that the Yankees are more vulnerable than they’ve been in a long time. Their rotation woes may be overstated, but on paper they’d lose every matchup with the Red Sox if both teams could set their rotations. Pedro has to be considered a better bet than Mussina and likewise Schilling over Hernandez. Lowe’s recent success makes me think he’s a better option than Lieber, and you said yourself that Vazquez and Wakefield are similar. The Red Sox also have Arroyo, of course, who might be their third-best pitcher. Likewise, the Yankees could have Brown, who would be their third-best pitcher.

Since the offenses are also similar and the Red Sox have a deeper and less tired bullpen, I think the Red Sox are the better team, if not by a huge margin.

Now, the better team doesn’t always win a series and the best team doesn’t always win the World Series, but being better improves your chances. You may think that with a little luck, your team can win even though it’s not the best, but it can’t be something you’re happy about.

It would be like saying you’d rather bet Q-J than A-K in poker. Sure, all it takes is a little luck to give you the pot, but who would really rather have the shorter odds going in?

I don’t want the Red Sox to win the AL East because I think it will necessarily improve their chances of winning the World Series; I’m just tired of seeing the Yankees win the division. As for saying that the Yankees aren’t struggling because they’ve played .700 ball against some bad teams, let’s just say that I don’t think the Red Sox, Twins and A’s (or Angels) will give the Yankees as many chances to come back as the Orioles and Devil Rays have.

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