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Desperate Yanks run into nervous Red Sox in Bronx showdown

It is now time, whether all those playoff-privileged East Coast fans want to admit it or not, to face up to the very tangible possibility that both the Yankees and the defending World Series champion Red Sox might be on the outside looking in this postseason.

Not the Yankees or the Red Sox. The Yankees and the Red Sox. Both of them. Sitting home. In October.

The Yankees, as of this moment, are surely out of it. Despite a weekend sweep of the Orioles, the Yankees are floundering, 15-15 in their last 30 games, deep in third place in the American League East (9 1/2 games deep) and in third place in the wild card standings, five games behind the Sox. The Web site coolstandings.com gives the Yanks only a 7.3 percent chance of making the postseason.

The Red Sox? They haven't been in first place in almost two months. They haven't been within three games of the AL East lead in a month. (They begin the week 4 1/2 games behind Tampa Bay.) And their lead in the wild card race is now down to a single game over the Twins.

Not since the wild-card era began in 1995 has there been a postseason without either the Yankees or Red Sox. In every one of them -- 13 and counting -- the Yankees were in. In seven of those years, both teams made it.

Now, we have a Yankee team that could be counting on Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner and Carl Pavano -- Carl Pavano! -- in September, and a Boston team with an ace (Josh Beckett) suffering through some mysterious arm ailment, a 42-year-old knuckleballer (Tim Wakefield) coming off the disabled list and a 37-year-old soft-tosser (Paul Byrd) as a fill-in.

It's just not looking good. For either team.

This week, beginning on Tuesday, the Red Sox and Yankees play a three-game series in the Bronx in what has been, many times in the last decade, a showdown for first place in the AL East. This one is different, though. First place isn't on the line this time. Survival is for one, and may be for the other.

The Yankees are getting desperate and almost certainly need a sweep to stay in the hunt. While the Red Sox will be in striking distance of a playoff spot when they leave the Bronx, they could very well be on the wrong side of the playoff picture, forced to play catch-up in September.

The Yankees, with Joba Chamberlain injured and ace Chien-Ming Wang long since sidelined, have had to count on Ponson, Rasner and, now, Pavano to stand next to old-timers Mike Mussina (having a bit of a renaissance) and Andy Pettitte. The Yanks have a 4.98 ERA in August, the worst of any team anywhere near the postseason.

The Yankees' once-feared lineup is struggling, too. Jason Giambi is hitting .219 in August. Pudge Rodriguez is hitting .209. The Yanks score 4.86 runs a game, seventh in the 14-team AL.

The Red Sox, with Beckett's next start being pushed back to Friday, will send Wakefield, Byrd and Jon Lester against the Yanks this week. There's a lot of worry about Beckett's arm injury. With him out, and with a struggling Clay Buchholz down to the minors, the Sox will have to rely on Daisuke Matsuzaka (15-2, 2.98 ERA) and the 24-year-old Lester (12-5, 3.49) to lead the way in September. The Red Sox have a 4.76 ERA in August, just ahead of the Yanks.

The Sox have questions in their lineup, too. J.D. Drew's back is acting up. Mike Lowell is out with a sore oblique muscle. David Ortiz is hitting only .237 in August, with just three home runs. Manny Ramirez is gone.

Clearly, the Yankees are more desperate at this point. They've lost five games to the AL East lead in August and have only 32 left to play. Even Hank Steinbrenner is giving off white-flag kind of signals.

But Beckett's injury, the resiliency of the first-place Rays and the push from the Twins give Boston fans plenty reason to be nervous, too. The Twins are 21-14 in the second half, behind only the Rays and Angels in the AL. Boston is just 18-15.

And so it may be time to picture an October that doesn't include either Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. A fall without Big Papi and Derek Jeter. A postseason without the game's two most popular teams.

Can you see it?

Cubs fans know how valuable the versatile Mark DeRosa is. The man plays second base, third base, left field and right field. Manager Lou Piniella can plug him in a lot of places, at virtually any time, to take over for an injured starter or to give one of the big studs on the team a much-needed rest. He's an irregular regular, a jack of all positions, and he's having the best season of his 11-year career. Last week, everybody's understudy crushed a homer in four straight games, hit .435 (10-for-23) and drove in six runs for the Cubs. DeRo (.287/.381 on-base, 18 homers, 77 RBI) is yet another reason why we can say the Cubs are a legitimate World Series contender while keeping a straight face.

The Rays (4-2 last week) are back in St. Pete to start a nine-game homestand, which is awfully good news considering they're 47-18 at The Trop, the best home record in baseball. But the Rays are starting to make some noise away from Florida, too. They won two of three against the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field last weekend, where the ChiSox are 46-21. That pushed Tampa Bay to .500 on the road this season. The Rays haven't lost a series away from St. Pete since the All-Star break. It's just another indication that Tampa Bay -- tied with the Angels for the best record in the AL, a half-game behind the Cubs for the best record in baseball -- is a real threat not only to make it to the postseason, but to win the AL East despite that horrid September schedule.

Ricky Nolasco, FLA at SFG, Aug. 19

9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 11 K, 1 BB

Nolasco's game score -- a measure of starting prowess designed by Bill James -- was the second-best this year, behind the no-hit game Boston's Jon Lester threw against K.C. in May.

Grady Sizemore, CLE vs. KC, Aug. 21

4-for-5, 1 HR, 1 3B, 7 BI, 1 SB

Sizemore is a home run short of his first 30-30 season.

"As soon as A.J. tripped, he yelled 'Obstruction.' I looked at the umpire, thinking he was going to say something like, 'Are you kidding me?' And [the ump] was like, 'Yep, yep, yep.'"

-- Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett, on the rundown play Sunday involving White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who admittedly initiated contact with Tampa Bay third baseman Willy Aybar

If the Cardinals are to make all this effort worthwhile, if they're to really work their way into the postseason, they have to make their move now. They're 3 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the wild card race, and Tuesday they host Milwaukee in the first of two critical games, the final two games between these two teams this season. Things haven't gone too smoothly for the Cards against the Brewers this year. Milwaukee is 9-4 in the series. Ryan Braun has six homers and is hitting .481, too.

• Maybe it's the blanket coverage, maybe it's the time of the year, maybe it's just players being tired. But, man, a lot of guys are dogging it these days.

After the Rays' B.J. Upton was benched last week for not hustling, Monday he cruised out of the box when he thought he had a home run, then loafed into second to settle for an apparent double. Except that the Angels' Mark Teixeira, trailing the play, tagged him before he got to the bag. Great play by Tex. Awful by B.J.

The Astros' Hunter Pence was ripped the other day for not breaking for home when he should have. His teammate, Lance Berkman, similarly messed up a couple of days earlier.

Sunday, Upton misread a fly ball to center and hardly seemed ready to get the ball back in quickly, allowing a catcher (Pierzynski) to tag up and go to second and to eventually score the winning run. (See the next note below.)

Sunday night, the Dodgers' Manny Ramirez loped over to a ball hit to him in left field in extra innings, instead of charging it, then flipped it casually into second base instead of firing it in. The Phillies Shane Victorino beat out the throw, and the Phils won a few batters later.

The good side of all these: At least we can show the kids how not to do it.

• Pierzynski's 10th-inning play on Sunday (see "Quote," too, above) was so weak it was strong. You have to somehow appreciate a guy who can think on his feet that well. Or off his feet, as it were. And then to be able to sell it to the umpires. Beautiful. In a real ugly way.

If you missed it, it went like this: Caught in a rundown between second and third after breaking for third on a ball hit in front of him -- dumb, dumb, dumb -- Pierzynski, as he was stumbling back, threw out his left elbow in a desperate attempt to contact the Rays' Aybar. It worked. After barely grazing Aybar on his way down, Pierzynski got the call from the umps that he had been obstructed in his so-called running.

Pierzynski pulled off a smart play to get to second in the first place, tagging up on a cruising and evidently unaware Upton catching a ball in center. Then A.J. turned idiot on his decision to go on the ground ball. And then he reverted to genius to get the obstruction call. He ended up scoring the winning run. What a piece of work.

• Jimmy Rollins has four hits in his last 45 at-bats (.089). He wants people to cheer for that?

• Milwaukee manager Ned Yost fielded a few questions last week after he allowed CC Sabathia to throw 130 pitches in a complete-game, 9-3 win over the Astros. Sabathia threw 22 pitches in the ninth, an inning that started with a 9-2 Brewers' lead. Whether you believe modern pitchers are babied or not, the decision to let Sabathia continue pitching in such a blowout seems patently ridiculous.

• Since Sabathia's arrival, the Brewers are 9-1 when CC pitches, 15-16 when he doesn't. He threw 96 pitches in six innings against the Pirates on Sunday in a game Milwaukee won in 12 innings.

• The Twins' Road Trip from Hell has started about as well as you can expect a 14-game, 15-day march to go, starting with a four-game split in Anaheim against the Angels over the weekend. From here, the Twins have three games in Seattle, then four in Oakland and -- get this -- a cross-country trip to Toronto for a three-game set there. Somehow, the term "make or break" comes to mind.

• The Braves have nothing to play for anymore. But Chipper Jones does. Suddenly neck-and-neck with St. Louis' Albert Pujols for the NL batting crown, Jones has reason to go for it. He's never won a batting title, finishing second last year (.340 to .337) to Colorado's Matt Holliday.

• For all the fuss we made over Manny's move to L.A. -- including, in the interest of full disclosure, in this space last week -- the Dodgers are now just 11-11 since the trade. Manny has one home run in his last 44 at-bats. The Dodgers have lost six of their last eight. And did I mention Manny's play in extra innings Sunday night?

• Not sure why I'm so obsessed with this, but I am. Ryan Howard averages about 1.3 strikeouts a game. If he plays in the rest of the Phillies' games -- and he probably should -- he'll end up with somewhere around 212 strikeouts, wiping out his record of 199 last year. And he'll still have 40-plus home runs and 130-plus RBIs. Would you want him on your team?

• Randy Johnson almost certainly won't get the six decisions he needs over the rest of this season to reach 300 career wins. But you have to think he'll be back next year. In his last eight starts, the soon-to-be 45-year-old Unit is 6-0 with a 1.93 ERA. Opponents are hitting .160 off him.

Lots of mail on the piece I did on Dream Teams in Olympic baseball, and not all of it good. For example:

I like the idea of your article, however I do have one question -- when did Chase Utley lose his American citizenship? I know he is in a slump right now, but Pedroia? Seriously?

-- Paul, Philadelphia

Well, Paul, thanks for going easy on me. Unlike some ...

I think SI needs to start drug testing for its writers ... you picked two other second basemen over Chase Utley?

-- Joe, Chesapeake, Va.

OK, here's the backstory on that blunder. The Dream Team piece was up on the site for I'd say, oh, .063 seconds before someone ripped me for not including Utley on the American team. And, clearly, it is an oversight. I blew it. Don't know how I missed him. Don't know how I could. But I did. Now, being the Internet and all, I could have rushed back to the piece and corrected the error and saved my inbox some serious strain-age. I could have made it look like it never happened, like I never messed up. But, ethically, is that cool? Is that OK? It's one thing to dive back in and correct an error in fact -- a statistic or an incorrect year or a misspelling or something. But this was an opinion. An ill-informed error in execution. But, still, an opinion. It's not, technically speaking, wrong. Instead, I decided to take the heat, admit I screwed up and correct it here. Utley should be on that team, over Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler and anyone else. Happy now?

How could you not consider Venezuela's team in your analysis? Venezuela could put a team that can match up with any of those! Santana, Big-Z, Cabrera and Ordonez, just to name a few, are not precisely nobodies in MLB.

-- Rafael Guerra, Caracas

Nope, you're right, Rafael. I could have put several other teams in the Dream Team story, and Venezuela would have headed the list. I just didn't want it to get too unwieldy, that's all. I didn't want to go through 16 teams, like the WBC does. So the editors and I decided on four. If we had picked five or six, Venezuela certainly would have been there.

No love for Canada? I'm pretty sure we'd at least be the fourth best team, better than Cuba. Sure our middle infield is weak, but we're pretty strong everywhere else and our pitching is all-world.

C Russell Martin, 1B Justin Morneau, 2B Pete Orr, 3B Corey Koskie, SS Danny Klassen, OF Jason Bay, Matt Stairs, and Joey Votto. SP Jeff Francis, Erik Bedard, Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden and Shawn Hill. CL Eric Gagne, Rheal Cormier and Jesse Crain.

-- Jeff Little, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada

Good team, Jeff. You can argue with Rafael about who comes in after the four I picked: the U.S., Japan, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. And include this next guy in the discussion ...

I am not saying that the four teams you have mentioned are unworthy, or South Korea is superior to any of those teams. However, S. Korean baseball has recently beat three of the four noted nations in Beijing. One may argue that the teams were shorthanded, yet in the first WBC, Korea beat the U.S. and handed Japan two losses out of the three times they faced each other even with their major leaguers. If the organization of the seeding for that event was made with some practical sense, Korea could have just as easily been in the finals. Therefore, when it comes to "strongest baseball-playing nations in the world," doesn't the Korean team deserve the least bit of recognition?

-- Donguk, Seoul

Yes, and you wrote this before the Koreans beat Cuba for the gold medal in Beijing. I'd say that bolsters your argument a little bit.

Brian McCann over Joe Mauer? Dream on. The latter is a future HOFer and the former, well, isn't. It's nice that he has more HRs THIS year though.

-- Dave, Columbus

Dave, I like Mauer plenty, but I'm not ready to bestow that future HOF tag on him quite yet. Like everybody else, I'd like to see a little more power out of him. And don't dismiss McCann so quickly. His power gives him the edge over Mauer in OPS, and that's not just this year.

Embrace the WBC, it IS baseball's Olympics, played by the very best players in the world, not just one unimportant player from each roster as you and Lasorda want. The WBC was a great, compelling show last time and will be better this time. The only way to make the Olympics work would be to interrupt the season for at least 12 days in mid-August to late September, a la hockey in the Winter Olympics. You really think that will ever happen? File this lame idea and column under Fantasy Sports, you can't possibly have been serious about this.

-- Jon DeMent, St. Cloud, Minn.

Jon, here's what I think. Baseball will make its way back to the Olympics as Major League Baseball allows some of its players to be used. The list of players won't include the best. I can't see players who could make a difference over here being allowed to play over there, even for only a couple of weeks. But the new Olympians will be guys on teams' 40-man rosters, and then the Olympic organizers will supplement (if they have to) with minor leaguers. Not great. But better than no baseball at the Olympics at all.

From what I've heard, attendance at Tampa Bay Rays games is pretty meager. If that's the case, the population of Tampa should be lined up and slapped. As of August 20th, the Rays are tied for the best record in baseball, have the best home record, are 8-2 over their last ten games, and just took two in a row from the Angels. Anyone who thought the Rays would fade in the second half was sorely mistaken. The Rays are here to stay, and are most definitely a legitimate World Series contender.

-- Scott, New Mexico

How'd this question get in here? Attendance at Rays game is still pretty lame, at just over 21,000 a game, but it is up almost 4,000 a game from last year. So that's something. The thing is, when you've had a team that has been miserable for a whole decade, playing in a nondescript dome in the middle of acres of parking lots in a sleepy town like St. Petersburg, it's hard to draw fans. It's going to take several seasons like this one -- and, yes, a new stadium -- for the Rays to move out of the bottom third in attendance. Go easy on the fans of that area, Scott. They have some problems to overcome.

If MLB owners are really concerned about losing money during a two-week Olympic layoff (don't get me started), I have a suggestion: How about scheduling day-night doubleheaders during an Olympic year to make up for the two-week layoff? That way the owners maintain their 162-game season and the Olympics can get players for their two weeks. Granted, I don't see the (too-powerful) players' union going for that. But hey, it's an idea.

-- Ray Kim, Troy, NY

Yeah, Ray, it's an idea. But if it's going to cost the teams too much money -- doubleheaders are generally money-losing propositions -- nobody's going to go for it. Sorry.

I have a solution to the Baseball in the Olympics problem. The powers that be should make it part of the Winter Olympics. Play the games in a dome during MLB's offseason. It's so simple it just might work.

-- Bert Thomas, Elkridge, Md.

I had a couple people suggest this, Bert. All sorts of technical, and other, issues with this. First, if baseball, a sport meant to be played outdoors in the summer, can't make it in the Summer Games, why should the Winter Olympics organizers care? Venues would be harder to come by, too. In cold-weather cities where the Winter Games are held, you'd have to have a domed stadium big enough to play baseball in, and those aren't found in the smaller cities that generally host the Winter Olympics. You really can't ask a Torino, Italy, or an Albertville, France, to build a $300 million dome for baseball. And I could see MLB objecting to the scheduling of this, too. Players would have to jump right from the Olympics, which normally begin in early February (and you'd think there'd be some kind of practice/qualifying before), into spring training. In fact, they'd miss some spring training. It would, in effect, lengthen seasons for those who participate. And those are just the problems off the top of my head. I just don't see it happening.

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