Friday August 7th, 2009

If there is to be October baseball in the new Yankee Stadium this season, we now know what that will be like. We know how a sellout crowd in this stadium sounds. We know how an electric atmosphere feels. And now we know what a championship-level Yankees team looks like.

All three have been seen to varying degrees at some point this year, but they came together in a perfect confluence Thursday night in the Yankees thoroughly convincing 13-6 win [Recap | Box] over the Red Sox that removed the last measure of doubt about the Yankees' worthiness as legitimate title contenders. And while it is far too soon for anyone to start making reservations for another postseason in the Bronx, it is at least time to acknowledge that the Yankees have answered every question in their path. Yes, they proved they can beat teams with an offensive explosion. Yes, they proved they can beat teams despite getting dreadfully inconsistent pitching, as they did by walking 12 hitters Thursday. And yes, they proved, finally, that they can beat the Red Sox.

The Yankees entered the game in a position only a contortionist could love -- standing on top of the Red Sox and looking up at them at the same time. Even as New York was dissecting the rest of the major leagues to a .642 winning percentage, there was no mistaking the giant hole on the Yankees resume, the one that looked an awful lot like the number 0. As in, zero wins against their archrivals, their nearest pursuers, and their biggest threat to returning to the postseason.

But now that number is 1, and if it still is miniscule when compared to the eight the Red Sox have against them, it is surely bigger than it looks. Because that one equals 3½, which is their lead now in the AL East. It means 1st, which is the position the Yankees will be in in the standings no matter what happens over the weekend. And it means an end to the infinite amount of wonder and speculation about whether or not the Yankees really were the best team in the division. "Now," said Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira with a laugh, "you guys will have to find something else to talk about."

The media weren't the only ones unsure of what to make of this team, though. Such is the reality that comes with being able to beat everybody except the one team that is your most challenging competitor. If their best-in-baseball record over the past three months wasn't enough to finally convince people that the Yankees are in fact worthy of their first place standing, then Thursday night's thrashing of the Red Sox should finally do the trick. To be sure, the rest of the series is littered with potholes -- namely Josh Beckett and Jon Lester -- that could once again leave them facing serious question marks, but if nothing else, the Yankees proved that they are not the same pushovers they were while the Red Sox were rolling them eight consecutive times. On Thursday night, the Yankees pushed back.

Some Yankees, like catcher Jorge Posada, insisted afterward that this is the same Yankees team that the Red Sox dominated two months ago. "Nothing's changed," he said.

Others disagreed. "I think we are different," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said about his club now compared to when they last played the Red Sox back in early June. "Our starters are better and out bullpen is much better."

Their starter, Joba Chamberlain, wasn't very good, but the Yankees won anyway. Their bullpen didn't have to use Phil Hughes or Mariano Rivera, which will only help keep them fresh and available for the rest of the series. For this night, the Yankees were simply able to win with brute force, using 18 hits, including four home runs.

Two of them came in the decisive fourth inning, when both Melky Cabrera and Posada launched three-run homers. The first put the Yankees ahead, while the second put the game away. In that one half inning that lasted 35 minutes, the Yankees sent 13 men to the plate, got eight hits, two walks, eight runs, and their swagger back. "That," said Girardi, "was a fun inning."

"We are playing a lot better," acknowledged Posada. "Hopefully, we can pile on."

As satisfying as Thursday's win was for their fans, who made it only the second sellout of the year, it's hard to imagine the Yankees running away with the division. The Red Sox are not up to full strength, and injuries to Jason Bay and Rocco Baldelli forced them to patch together a starting a lineup that included Kevin Youkilis in left field ("I told him if he makes an error, tell everyone to blame me," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said before the game) and backup Casey Kotchman at first base.

"It's a long year," said Francona. "Sometimes you're a little beat up and maybe not in position to reel off eight of nine. That's just being realistic. We like our team a lot."

Francona is right to be confident in his club. But for the first time all year, the Yankees are right to be confident that they truly are the best team in the AL East, even if the race is far from over. "The division's too tough," said Johnny Damon, who also homered on the night, when asked if the Yankees might be about to run away with it. "Boston's too good a team, Tampa Bay's too good a team. This is going to go right down to the wire."

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