Thursday August 6th, 2009

Given the glaring spotlight that shines with blinding intensity on them at all times and the significance that is attached to their every encounter, it would seem odd at best and sacrilegious at worst to suggest that the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is not what it once was. But look closer: After their epic playoff duels of 2003 and 2004 and a first-place tie in 2005, the two teams, like partners who have spent too much time together in close quarters for too long, have drifted apart. The heat of the flame has been turned down. Over the past three seasons their late summer showdowns -- which should be the time where they most justify their relentless hype -- have been just that: mere shows, spectacles with little or no real consequence at stake.

Yet when the rivalry resumes on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium for the first of a four-game series, it will offer something beyond the usual hyperbole about ancient enemies opposing one another that marks any Yankees-Red Sox get-together. For the first time in three years, the two teams will square off in a series that matters more for where they are today than where they have been in the past.

Simply put, first place in the AL East is on the line, and believe it or not, that has been a rare occurrence between these two lately. Not since August 2006, when the Yankees massacred the Red Sox in a five-game sweep at Fenway Park that swelled their AL East lead from 1 1/2 games to 6 1/2 have the two teams met so late in the season with so much on the line. In five August or September series since then, this marks the first time that the two teams are in first and second place and with the divisional lead to be determined by the outcome of the series.

For most rivalries, that would be a blip hardly worth noticing, but for the passionate way that this rivalry came to mark the game's history and define the past decade, and for the way in which the two teams are presented to the public who can't seem to get enough of them (admit it: You love to hate them), it is a veritable epoch.

As if that weren't enough to give the series some added juice, there is this: The matchup has not been this one-sided in almost a century. Not since the Red Sox won nine straight against the Yankees to open the 1912 season has there been a disparity in on-field results like the chasm that has emerged this year. It is clear that this matchup could use a little kick in the pants, and that's mostly because only one team -- the Red Sox -- has been doing the kicking thus far. When last we left them, the Yankees were heading back on the shuttle with their tail between their legs and an 0-8 record against Boston. The Red Sox, meanwhile, looked younger, deeper and more athletic and seemed poised to lord over the AL East, or at least the older, thinner and slower Yankees, for the rest of the year.

But since loss No. 8 on June 11, the Yankees have not only erased the two-game deficit but surged in front by 2 1/2 games. What has changed? On the surface, not much. The Yankees offense was as potent then as it is now. From Opening Day through June 11, they ranked second in the majors in runs, fourth in batting average, fifth in on-base percentage, first in slugging percentage and first in home runs. Since then, they rank second in runs, third in batting average, second in on-base percentage and slugging and fourth in home runs. Their pitching, particularly starters A.J. Burnett and Joba Chamberlain, has stabilized, and the bullpen has come into sharper focus with Phil Hughes now ably setting up Mariano Rivera.

In other words, they look like the Yankees.

The irony is that in many ways the Red Sox resemble the Yankees, too, but not in a good way. Instead of looking like the dominant force they were for the first two months, the Red Sox have hit a summer swoon, losing 10 of 18 games since the All-Star break. It goes beyond just their sagging offense -- which has gone from ranking third in OBP, fifth in runs scored, slugging percentage and home runs and ninth in batting average to 12th, fifth, seventh, ninth and 17th in those categories -- to a case of stolen identity. If the Red Sox built a superior team than the Yankees in recent years it was in part by successfully copying and improving upon the same blueprint that the Yankees rode to success more than a decade ago. But just as the Yankees encountered some turbulence due to age and scandal, the last few months have made Boston's transformation into Yankee look-alikes look downright eerie.

Suddenly it is the Red Sox trying to put out fires in their clubhouse (Daisuke Matsuzaka's contretemps over how he was treated by the team's trainers) while the Good Ship Yankee sails on in harmony with Idiot-like behavior (shaving cream pie celebrations and championship belts for each day's hero). Suddenly it is the Red Sox who are watching aging sluggers break down (Mike Lowell, David Ortiz) while Yankees such as Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui enjoy bounce-back years well into their mid-30s. Suddenly it is the Red Sox who are getting less-than-expected from young arms (Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz) while the Yankees thrive (Chamberlain, Hughes). Suddenly it is the Red Sox who are making deadline deals to import expensive talent (Victor Martinez) at the cost of young prospects, while the Yankees are content to add low-cost complementary pieces (Jerry Hairston Jr.) to add depth and flexibility. And of course, suddenly it is the Red Sox who are at the center of the steroid scandal (Ortiz) while the Yankees (Alex Rodriguez) gladly cede that dreaded stage.

This is not to say, of course, that it will suddenly be the Yankees, and not the Red Sox, who dominate the season series from here on out. A Red Sox series victory would hardly come as a surprise. But with seven of the 10 games left being played in Yankee Stadium (only two of Boston's wins have come there so far), plus a rebuilt New York bullpen and a resurgent Rodriguez, it figures to at least be a more even and entertaining matchup.

And, once again, a more meaningful one.

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