BALTIMORE -- It was midway through the Yankees' 7-6 win last night against the Orioles in Yankee Stadium that YES broadcaster Michael Kay threw out a tidbit designed to give Yankee fans cause to swagger anew. Only once in the team's long history, Kay said, had the Yankees been in first place this late in the season and failed to finish first.
Of course, as Kay's partner Jim Kaat noted, just a couple of days earlier the word was that no Yankee team had spent less time in first place than this year's team -- which until Wednesday night had occupied the top spot just twice all season -- and finished ahead of the pack.
And the unspoken text, one revered by every Red Sox fan, even those fretting at their team's predicament with just 10 games to play, is that after last October, the Yankees should be very careful about invoking precedent. Yes, as e-mailer Debbie Lincoln noted yesterday, the Yankees could indeed ''revoke the choke," but they'll have to come through Boston to do so.
''I think it will come down to the last three games in Boston, and how much better can you plan it than that?" said Lou Piniella, who before he was the manager of a Tampa Bay team that this week put a crimp in the Sox' playoff plans by winning two out of three, was the right fielder on the 1978 Yankee team that won the most celebrated one-game playoff in the history of baseball's best rivalry.
With just one game separating the teams with 10 to play for both clubs, the Sox and Yanks could be headed to the most meaningful final weekend series between the teams since the one immortalized by David Halberstam in the ''Summer of '49." That weekend gave us Ted Williams vs. Joe DiMaggio, whose Yankees won both games to edge the Sox for the pennant by a game; next weekend could give us the Big Unit, Randy Johnson, vs. the Big Schill, Curt Schilling, the former teammates and erstwhile friends on track to face each other in the Fens next Saturday.
But, as Halberstam reminded all, the games before a possible Armageddon are just as meaningful; Sox fans of that day mourned a loss just two days before the final showdown, the so-called ''Scarborough game," when the Sox took a 1-0 lead into the ninth against pitcher Ray Scarborough and the lowly Washington Senators and lost, 2-1.
Besides, there's a third team in the equation, one threatening to blow up the exclusivity of the Sox-Yanks story lines; the reconstructed Cleveland Indians have been baseball's hottest team for two months and could easily displace either of the Eastern powers in the playoffs, if they don't overtake the Central division-leading White Sox first.
''Everybody playing these last 10 games has got somebody who can beat 'em," Sox first baseman Kevin Millar said in a Sox clubhouse rendered near-mute by the Devil Rays' 7-4 comeback win Wednesday night at Tropicana Field, the stillness broken only by the sound of the clubhouse kids scraping dirt off the players' cleats. ''The Devil Rays, the Blue Jays, the Royals.
''This will come down to the team that plays best and wins the most games. This is where you dig in, get in the trenches and battle, period. No stats, no b.s. This is about wins and losses. I think the group of guys we have understand that, and we just have to keep working.
''We're going to win games, we're going to lose games. We've just got to win more than we lose. It's all part of the dogfight now."
While the Sox enjoyed their first day off in a month, the Yankees, behind two home runs by catcher Jorge Posada, moved a game ahead of Boston by completing a four-game sweep of the Orioles, who return home to face the Sox in a three-game set that begins tonight, Bronson Arroyo pitching against Daniel Cabrera of the Birds.
The Yankees, winners of 10 of their last 11, six by one run, will spend the weekend at home against Toronto, a team they've beaten 10 of 15 times this season, including four of seven at the Stadium. Joe Torre, who has been forced because of injuries to improvise a starting rotation all season, is getting some key arms back at the right time. Mike Mussina, out since Aug. 29, dominated the Orioles last night; Jaret Wright is due to come back tomorrow, and the Big Unit has rediscovered his 97-mile-per-hour fastball at the most opportune time.
The Yankees then follow the Sox into Baltimore for a four-game engagement. The Birds have given the Sox fits this season, but this is a shadow of the club that took three out of four from the Sox in Camden Yards just before the All-Star break. That was back before Rafael Palmeiro, who homered in three straight games that weekend, was exposed as a steroid cheat; he won't be seen this weekend. Neither will Sammy Sosa, whose foot injuries have sidelined him for the season; All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts, who sustained a hideous elbow injury in a collision with the Yankees' Bubba Crosby earlier this week; or certified Sox-killer Rodrigo Lopez, the pitcher who has beaten the Sox 10 times since the start of the 2002 season. His turn does not come up this weekend.
While the Yanks are in Baltimore, the Sox come home to face the Blue Jays, who have beaten Boston nine out of 14 times this season, including two of three earlier this month in the Rogers Centre. Sox pitchers have a hideous 6.82 ERA against the Jays.
The Indians may have the most favorable schedule of all the playoff contenders -- three in Kansas City, a team they have beaten eight straight times; three at home against the Devil Rays, a team that shocked the Tribe in August by sweeping three straight in Jacobs Field; and three against the reeling White Sox, who after dropping two of three to the Indians, lost to the Twins in 11 innings last night as their lead in the Central dropped to 1 1/2 games. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said he received hundreds of e-mails from fans this week; if his team, which held a 15-game lead on Aug. 1, completes what Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey has dubbed ''The Dive of '05," his computer might crash, too.
The Red Sox, winners of just six of their last 14 games, have endured a week in which Johnny Damon had a needle stuck in his left shoulder, David Wells had a needle stuck in his right knee, and Tony Graffanino went down with a strained right groin. Damon is expected to play tonight and Wells vows to make his start Sunday; Graffanino says he will try to convince Terry Francona he can go. Closer Keith Foulke, meanwhile, called it a season yesterday, but the Sox already had conceded that one of last October's brightest stars probably wasn't even going to make the postseason roster.
The pitching staff has an ERA of 4.96 since Aug. 1; the bullpen ERA this season is 5.42, worst in the league. All summer, the Sox have outslugged people, but with an overworked Mike Timlin staggering toward the finish line, Francona may have no choice but to gamble that a couple of kids, Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Hansen, can handle meaningful innings in the white-hot pressure of a playoff race.
While the kids face tests unlike any they've ever known, the veterans, Timlin said, will summon the lessons harvested in the hardest of autumns.
''That is going to mean a lot," Timlin said. ''We're going to have resources to go to. We have something to look back on, and say, 'OK, this is what we've done. You've been there, you've been there, you've been there. Take from that experience.' "