Tuesday August 11th, 2009

The Yankees vacuumed any drama out of the AL East race with their four-game sweep of Boston last weekend, a testament to how well they constructed a relentless lineup full of switch hitters and left-handed hitters, not to mention the kind of power pitching they have lacked in recent years. They are a nightmare matchup for opposing managers. The last breath of the Red Sox ended when manager Terry Francona gave a 2-1 lead in the eighth Sunday to rookie right-hander Daniel Bard.

I said it back in April when the stadium opened and I'll say it again: You need left-handed hitters and left-handed pitchers to survive the shorter porch of the new Yankee Stadium. I don't know how you give Johnny Damon, slugging 150 points better off right-handers, an at-bat against a righty with a one-run lead in the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium, where he hooks anything he can into the right-center jet stream. Lead gone. Division gone. And lefty Hideki Okajima wound up pitching after all was lost that inning. When you play the Yankees at Yankee Stadium you have to defend the home run. Period.

Maybe it was moot, anyway. The Yankees surely do look like the better team, mostly because their old guys (mid-30s) are vastly outplaying Boston's old guys.

With that established, let's consider the drama that is left in the four-team wild-card race in the AL. Here is your handicap sheet as the race nears the final quarter pole, with the teams listed from most favored to least:

The case for: Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are as good of a 1-2 rotation punch as there is out there. Clay Buchholz threw well at Yankee Stadium. Maybe Tim Wakefield can give them something. The bullpen, Sunday excepted, remains one of the best in baseball. This is still a tough-minded, battle-tested team that won't go away. And the schedule should help. The Red Sox play 16 of their final 19 games against the Orioles, Royals, Blue Jays and Indians, four of the five worst teams in the league.

The case against: Sure, they're battle-tested, but are they battle-weary? David Ortiz, J.D. Drew and Jason Varitek have taken 910 left-handed at-bats and produced a .231 batting average. Nothing has hurt Boston more than the lack of pop from those aging left-handed hitters. Mike Lowell has zero mobility at third base. Wakefield is ancient and has a bad back and bad calf.

Also, the Red Sox still lack a competent big-league shortstop. And in big games against the Yankees, they were so strapped they had Kevin Youkilis playing left field, Chris Woodward playing shortstop and Edgar Gonzalez on the mound. How much of a reach was that? Of all the active pitchers who have appeared in 100 or more big-league games, the Red Sox chose the one, Gonzalez, with the absolute worst career ERA (5.80).

The case for: No team has more ways to generate runs than Tampa Bay. David Price has put together back-to-back strong starts and has the stuff to get on a roll. Ben Zobrist is having a monster season. The Rays still have 11 games left against Baltimore. But ...

The case against: B.J. Upton, Dioner Navarro and Pat Burrell haven't hit all season. Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine have ERAs that begin with a 6. The bullpen isn't as reliable as it was last year. Just another addition to the exhibit of why it's so hard to repeat as a pennant winner.

The case for: They might actually have a better shot of winning the division in what is an alarming switch of identities: the Rangers have the better pitching and defense and the Angels win with offense. Texas smartly managed the innings of rookies Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz so they could act as the Rangers' trade deadline "additions." Now, at a time when some clubs need to scale back the roles of rookie pitchers, Texas has them fresh for the stretch run. The club is built on the hitting of Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton and Michael Young, and only Young among them has been healthy and productive, so odds are Kinsler and Hamilton are due to contribute. The bullpen has been terrific.

"The biggest thing with our club is that the defense has been good and the bullpen has been good and deep," general manager John Daniels said. "Those are probably our two biggest keys. And the starting pitching has given us about one more inning per game on average, so that keeps you from having to go to your middle relief too often."

The case against: This is too much of an all-or-nothing offense that needs to hit home runs to win. There are too many holes at the back end of the lineup to consistently wear down pitchers. The Rangers' on-base percentage (.316) is the worst by the franchise since 1983. And until proven otherwise, the Rangers are a poor second-half team. In three of the past four seasons they took a winning record into the All-Star break and wound up with a losing season.

The case for: I suppose you can make a case that the Mariners will be even luckier than they already have been. They are 27-14 in one-run games. They've been outscored but somehow have a winning record. But they do catch the ball well, have a good bullpen, and somehow they are hanging in there.

The case against: They began the week five games out in the loss column with three teams ahead of them. That is a mountain to climb at this late stage of the year. They rank next-to-last in the league in runs scored. Erik Bedard is out for the year. Jarrod Washburn is in Detroit. They still have two more trips to the Eastern time zone and play 24 of their last 32 against the Angels, Rangers, White Sox, Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays. Good luck with that.

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