NEW YORK -- For a flickering moment, there was a race in the American League East, when the Yankees cut the margin to four games eight days ago. But there is no more. At least not now.
The three-game series that begins tonight offers the Red Sox an opportunity to bury the Yankees' divisional hopes. That would require a sweep, or at least two wins.
While the Red Sox would love to lay claim to their first AL East title since 1995, winning divisions doesn't guarantee postseason success. What the Red Sox really want is to make their biggest rivals' trek toward a playoff berth excruciatingly difficult, because wild-card teams with lots of good hitters and proven veteran pitchers tend to be dangerous in the playoffs.
"We're still looking at the division," said Yankees manager Joe Torre from Detroit last night. "It obviously got a lot tougher since [the Red Sox] had that weekend in Chicago, which worked out for them, and we're not winning as many games as we wanted to here.
"But it still comes down to the same basic premise that your record is going to dictate more than anything else. That's the only goal that we have to ourselves, and that's what I keep repeating to the players, that you can't control this. We can still do some damage, but we're still behind.
"We have to think more of winning games, and when it's all said and done at the end, our record has to qualify for playing in October, and that's our goal right now. I'm not saying we're just looking to win a wild card. I want to win a division."
If the Yankees still have designs on the AL East race -- and at this time in 1978 they were about the same number of games back -- they must take at least two of three this week and then dominate their schedule. After this series, they are home vs. Tampa Bay for three before their showdown against Seattle, another wild-card contender, at Yankee Stadium.
The Mariners, who opened a three-game series against the Angels last night, have been surprisingly resilient under former Red Sox bullpen coach John McLaren, a Manager of the Year candidate. The Mariners make you wonder whether they will fade in September, but there are few signs of that happening.
During this Sox-Yankees series, both teams have challenges.
For Boston, it's as simple as continuing this upswing in pitching and offense (46 runs in the four games in Chicago). That won't be as easy against Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and Chien-Ming Wang.
For the Yankees, it's returning to a stronger place in their starting pitching. Lately, young Philip Hughes as well as Mike Mussina and Clemens have been on poor cycles.
Other trends for both teams:
Late-inning relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Eric Gagné, who had been struggling, have begun pitching well of late. Farnsworth, who still throws 98-100 miles per hour, has allowed one hit in his last seven innings while Gagné has been working his way out of a funk in his last four outings.
Upswings for J.D. Drew and Johnny Damon. Damon has been riddled with nagging injuries all season but insisted on not going on the disabled list, and he has started to feel healthy in recent weeks. While he's lost his center field job to Melky Cabrera, Damon, as the DH and occasional left fielder, has increased his batting average from a season-low .233 on July 19 to .264. Drew's numbers are similar to Damon's, though Damon is a leadoff hitter and Drew was supposed to be a No. 5 hitter. Drew enters the series hitting .262 with 7 homers and 46 RBIs. He managed to break a 166-at-bat homerless streak Sunday.
On the old-guy front, Boston's Curt Schilling pitched much better in his last outing vs. Chicago Friday, while Clemens struggled against the Tigers in a loss the same night. Schilling is 8-5 with a 4.11 ERA in 19 starts, Clemens 5-5 with a 4.34 ERA in 14 starts. Both have the potential to give a significant morale boost to their teams with good pitching and can act as second pitching coaches to their younger teammates.
Sparkplugs: Bobby Kielty for Boston and Joba Chamberlain for the Yankees. No doubt Kielty is feeling much healthier now than he did at any point this season with the A's. Oakland general manager Billy Beane asserted, "He'll help the Red Sox considerably in a pennant race." He already has, from both sides of the plate, hitting a homer lefthanded Sunday. Chamberlain, the 22-year-old phenom who has been used in late relief, has pitched nine scoreless innings with 15 strikeouts, two walks, and three holds. He has jaw-dropping stuff and doesn't seem awed by New York.
Nicked-up stars. Derek Jeter, who rarely misses a game, has been struggling with a sore right knee, which kept him out of Sunday's game. Manny Ramírez's sore back also kept him out Sunday. Sox manager Terry Francona hoped that with yesterday's day off, Ramírez will come back refreshed. Jeter was back in the lineup last night. Meanwhile, David Ortiz's run-down body (shoulder, knee, leg) seems to have quieted down, enabling the slugger to produce more power of late.
There are no two more instrumental players to the success of their teams than Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada. Both have managed to avoid major injuries. One AL general manager said, "Posada has had an incredible offensive season and his defense and handling pitchers have been off the charts. Varitek has been his usual self in handling the pitching staff and it seems his offense has come back from last year. It seems both teams take their lead from these two guys."
Close your eyes and imagine Alex Rodriguez in a Red Sox uniform and Mike Lowell in a Yankee uniform. Both third basemen are having outstanding offensive seasons. A-Rod is the league's MVP while Lowell has been the rock of the Boston offense. When Sox owner John Henry was asked about his interest in A-Rod at Gordon Edes's Jimmy Fund charity function in Chicago last weekend, the crowd chanted, "Lo-well! Lo-well!"
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com