In absolute terms, they're a bit ahead from this point last year, although with the WBC, they've played 10 less games compared to 2008. We're 17 games above .500 now, compared to 14 over this time last year (and should be at least 20). The big difference is Tampa Bay, who were 23 games over last year, and 5 games in front of us. They've come back to earth this year, and we're clinging to a 1 game lead over NY, with TB being 6 back. I still think the Rays will stay in the race, but the magic just isn't there this time.
Last year, absolutely everything went right for them, and I don't think they had any key injuries. On the other hand, nobody had a career year for them, so most people figured they would be even better this year. As a team, the Rays just seem to be missing something this year (not to mention fans), but interestingly, there's at least one Ray near or at the top of every individual performance category this year. Strange. Enough about them...
On a good day, it's easy to pick the Sox as the AL frontrunner, and then how can you NOT think ahead to the possibility of a Red Sox - Dodgers WS with Manny and Joe Torre? A bit like dreaming of another Celtics-Lakers final - maybe next year for that one.
The problem is the Red Sox are a true Jekyll-Hyde team, and they have their share of bad days, when they are just so laughably lame. I don't know how this can be, and you never know when their mojo is working, but there's not much middle ground with this team. When they're on, they ARE the best team in baseball - everybody hits, each day it's a different hero, the defence is sound, and the relievers do their job. But then you see the team that showed up against the lowly Orioles and Mariners during 4 of the last 5 games and then you see just how vulnerable they can be when the mojo goes missing. How many times did Bay and Youkilis strike out over that stretch? What happened to Mr. MVP, Pedroia? How many rallies did Ellsbury and Drew kill? And it didn't matter who got the ball in the bullpen - NOBODY could get the job done. Not even Paps for that ugly, historic 11-10 meltdown. Scary.
That brings us to the Yankees, who almost got their share of first place yesterday. Both teams trailed in their games yesterday, but the Sox rallied and held on to their 8-4 lead, while the Jays could not, and dropped their 3rd straight to NY, 10-8. Ugh. I know this is hard to say, but right now the Yankees are the best team in the AL - they know how to win with clutch hits, late rallies, and lately a solid bullpen. However, as we know, they have their flaws and streaks, and at the season mid-point, I really don't see much to choose between them and the Sox. I really wonder sometimes if these teams were separated at birth, and of course if you're from the Northeast, these things matter - big time. Anyhow, just a few things to consider along these lines....
Both starting rotations have not performed as expected.
Both have a top starter that has lost it for the time being and nobody is sure what the problem is - Dice-K and Wang.
Both have great closers who save almost every game they pitch, but have had their lapses and blown winnable games.
Both have aging DH's who are on the decline and can't really contribute on the field.
Both have elite players at first base.
Both have solid third basemen who are coming off hip surgery. No doubt that A-Rod is the better player, but he's streaky.
Both have aging catchers who can still come up with clutch hits.
Both have had pleasant surprises - who expected Damon to still be hitting home runs? Who knew Gardner was so fast? Nick Green being Boston's best clutch hitter?
Both teams have solid, dependable players - not flashy, but real pros. For the Yankees Jeter and Cano - for the Sox, Pedroia and Bay (and at times, Drew).
Both are solid at home, but also play well on the road.
As much as I love the Red Sox - and hate the Yankees - it's really hard to say right now who's the better team. Offensively, the Sox have more balance and speed, but the Yanks have more power. Both starting rotations should have 2-3 20 game winner each, but I doubt either will produce even 1. The Sox have more question marks in terms of players who are on the decline or playing below their potential - Ortiz, Lowell, Drew, Varitek and Ellsbury. Shortstop remains a work in progress, but I think we're past the worst of it, and I don't think that spot will cost us any more games now. The only tangible edge I can see is our bullpen, which until recently has been the best in baseball. But when you see these recent blowups you have to wonder, and if we lose that edge, I think the Yankees have the upper hand.
We may have a tangible edge with the bullpen, but the Yankees have the intangible edge that will trump everything if our bullpen falters big time. Winning is simply in their DNA - they have the killer instinct and know how to win when the going gets tough. Just like the Celtics and just like the Canadiens. Every sport has its one killer franchise, and the Red Sox know this better than anybody.
The Yankees have mental toughness in spades, and don't let our 8-0 mark against them this year fool you. Five of those games were at home, and many came before A-Rod was in the lineup. I fully expect they'll split the remaining games, and I think we're going to be in for a great second half of the season. The Jays and the Rays will kill each other off and will do their share of damage to keep the Sox and Yankees in check.
The biggest wildcard I see right now would be a trade to change the balance of power. It's very possible the Sox will panic and give up some pitching to get a solid power bat. Without Nady, the Yankees are thin in the outfield and the bench, and may deal for a swingman. Both teams have holes, but both teams are very good when everybody shows up. Since they both lack the consistency we've seen from the Dodgers all year, there's no way to tell who's really the better team. They can get hot or tank at any time, and it all comes down to which team plays well in the big games. I'm pretty sure both will make the playoffs, but beyond that it's a coin toss. Who do you like?