Rivals in Exile: Goodbye Dog Days, Hello Stretch Drive

Ben Jacobs: Well, some of the exhilaration from making up five games in a week has faded, as it’s Saturday morning and the Red Sox haven’t made up any more ground this week. I’m hoping that the Red Sox win their remaining two games against the Tigers and the Yankees lose at least one of their games against the Blue Jays. Even if that happens, however, I probably won’t really get excited about the AL East race unless the Red Sox are within five games — at the very least — when their next series against the Yankees arrives.

What concerns me right now are the Angels. You may remember that I said the Red Sox needed to take advantage of their easy schedule and go at least 18-8 in a stretch that could allow them to take control of the wild card race. Well, with two games left, they’re already 18-6. However, they’ve only managed to gain half a game on the Angels, who have won nine in a row.

So, much more than I’m rooting for Ted Lilly to pitch the same way against the Yankees today as he did Monday against the Red Sox, I’m wishing for Johan Santana to pitch against the Angels today the way he’s been pitching against everyone recently.

For my peace of mind late in the season, I like it if the Red Sox can stay ahead of their wild card opponents as much as possible, even though I know it only really matters if they’re ahead on the last day. To that end, I don’t want the Red Sox entering next week’s crucial series against the Angels only half a game ahead — or even worse, behind.

I believe the Red Sox are better than the Angels, I believe the Red Sox will win the series against the Angels and I believe the Red Sox will win the wild card over the Angels. But I sure wouldn’t mind a little help from other teams along the way.

The only thing preventing me from panicking about the fact that the Red Sox haven’t opened up any ground in the wild card race and their schedule is about to get harder is the fact that the Angels haven’t made up any ground either, and their schedule is about to get even more difficult.

The Red Sox have 35 games left, and 15 of them are against good teams (the Yankees, Angels, A’s and Rangers). The Angels have 34 games left, and 18 of them are against good teams (the A’s, Rangers, Red Sox and Twins). So, the Red Sox still have the advantage, but I’d sure like it if they didn’t need to win that series against the Angels to stay ahead of them in the race.

Larry Mahnken: The Yankees spent the week desperately trying to keep the lead above five games, winning close games over weaker teams in Cleveland and Toronto. The lineup began to awaken in Toronto, and then in the ninth inning on Saturday, all hell broke loose. Nine runs in the ninth, and a clear message had been sent: the slump is over.

At least for the lineup, it is. The pitching remains shaky, and now the bullpen has gotten into the act. But, this is a case where the stats look worse than reality. Yes, the Yankees’ starters have been giving up a lot of runs, but they’ve been of the “one bad inning” variety — which counts the same on the scoreboard, but there’s an important difference. When your starters gives up all their runs in one inning, but is solid the rest of the way, then they can still pitch relatively deep into the game. And that’s more or less what’s happened. In the past two weeks, with the exception of Loaiza, who’s stunk ever since coming to New York, and Mike Mussina, who’s being brought back slowly, the Yankees’ starters have averaged 6.2 IP per start.

Unfortunately, the bullpen has started to struggle now, and the effects of pitching almost every other day has caught up to Quantrill and Gordon. They’ve had a 9.88 ERA in the past two weeks.

Now, the Yanks blew five games in seven days, but it would still take a collapse of historic proportions for the Yankees to miss the playoffs. Boston, Oakland, Anaheim and Texas are going to be beating up on each other over the last month, and the Yankees have a 7 game cushion on Anaheim. They’re almost certain to make the playoffs.

With that in mind, Joe Torre really should bite the bullet and put a few games at risk by keeping Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera in the bullpen. A three-headed monster like that could carry the Yankees through October (a little like Anaheim in 2002), but it won’t do them much good if they’re tired and ineffective. This is something they should have been doing when the lead was 10½, but it’s something they have to do now.

BJ: It would be smart if Torre did that, but he won’t. One nice thing about the Red Sox chopping the lead down by five games is that it means the Yankees bullpen won’t get to rest up for the playoffs. Torre generally works his best relievers to get a big lead and then uses them sparingly in September. Unless the Red Sox falter soon, he won’t feel safe doing so this year.

I’ve been skeptical all season about whether or not Rivera, Gordon and Quantrill could withstand the workload Torre was asking of them this year. They’re all older guys, they’ve all had injuries in their past and they were all on pace for nearly 100 innings (or more) earlier this season.

Rivera has been eased up a little as he’s now on pace for about 87 innings, and he’s clearly handling his workload well with just a 1.34 ERA. Gordon is still on pace for 94 innings, and his ERA has jumped from 1.78 two weeks ago to 2.23 this Sunday morning. Quantrill’s on pace for about 106 innings, and he now has a 3.86 ERA and 1.35 WHIP.

My hope is that the Yankees relievers reach those paces and are tired in October, meaning they aren’t capable of bailing out the struggling starters and allowing the potent offense to make a comeback. My bigger hope is that the Red Sox are in October to take advantage of it.

The Physics of the “Seamy” Side of Baseball
How much difference does seam height really make?

Fortunately, Saturday went pretty much how I wanted it to. Pedro Martinez dominated the Tigers and now has a 2.25 ERA in August (granted, the competition hasn’t been great). Earlier in the day, Johan Santana dominated the Angels and snapped their nine game winning streak.

Now, all the Red Sox need to do is beat the Tigers one more time and they go into their series with the Angels ahead by at least 1½ games, meaning the Angels would need to sweep them to take over first place in the wild card race. If the Twins are able to beat the Angels again today, that would be even better.

Regardless of what happens today, however, I don’t think I’ll give much thought to the Yankees next week. I’ll have my attention focused squarely on the Red Sox and rooting for them to win at least two of three games against both the Angels and Rangers. If they happen to also pick up a game or two on the Yankees as well, that would be great, but I’m not worrying about it right now.

LM: With a loss on Sunday, the Yankees dropped another game in the standings. They should have won all 7 games they played in the last week, but in winning 5 of 7, they’ve done all that could truly be expected of them. If they continue to play at the level they did this weekend, then they’ll be just fine.

4½ games is still a sizable lead, only looking small in comparison to the huge lead the Yankees held two weeks ago. The relative ease of the Yankees’ schedule for the next three weeks, playing 17 games against teams without winning records, the first 11 of them at home, means there’s no real need to worry right now.

Despite the loss Sunday and a game over the week, the Yankees can take away a lot of positives. Mike Mussina was excellent for 95 pitches Sunday, but fell apart once he started to get tired. The line looked bad in the end, but it really was a positive outing for Moose. And Kevin Brown threw 120 pitches Saturday, answering the questions about his back that arose in the past week.

Alex “Inanimate Carbon” Rodriguez got the game-winning hit on Thursday. That wasn’t in and of itself that amazing, but it came with runners on second and third. With A-Rod batting only around .200 with RISP this season, it’s very encouraging to see that Rodriguez has now gotten hits in 3 of his last 4 ABs in those situations. If Rodriguez was hitting the same with RISP as he does at all other times, his OPS would be 64 points higher, he’d have 22 more runs created, and he’d have a GPA of .319 instead of his still-good .299.

If A-Rod does hit in the clutch down the stretch and in the playoffs, it will make up for the loss of Jason Giambi, though Tony Clark and John Olerud have been surprisingly solid in his place. They’ve posted a combined .802 OPS as Yankees, which isn’t special, but above average for AL first basemen. That’s about the level of production the Yanks got out of Tino Martinez in the late 90’s. Clark and Olerud have taken a potential disaster and turned it into a push. If Giambi does come back and is effective, that would be huge, but with three great hitters already in A-Rod, Sheffield and Matsui, the Yankees don’t need him.

What they need is good relief, which could make Steve Karsay the most important September addition. While you don’t want to go too far in projecting the return of a pitcher who has been out almost two full years, but Karsay’s with the team, throwing in the bullpen, and looking good. If he’s able to pitch effectively in September, he could give the Yankees the vital solid middle relief they need to keep Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera on their butts. And if he pitched well, he could be a huge addition to the postseason roster.

The next three weeks represent the Yankees’ last, best chance to finally put Boston out of the AL East race. If they play well, they can tack on a couple of games before they play the Sox on the 17th. If they don’t add any games, or even worse, drop some, then things get hairy.

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