The Red Sox are back in first place, and if their one-game edge is small, their psychological advantage over the Yankees figures to be enormous at this point because Boston has gone 7-0 against New York by winning in almost every fashion imaginable. Like snowflakes and batting stances, each loss might seem the same, but no two have been exactly alike. The Yankees have lost to the Red Sox in New York (twice) and Boston (five times). They've lost with Joba Chamberlain, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte on the mound, and they've lost while facing Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield. They've lost scoring a lot of runs (11 on April 25) and no runs at all (June 9). They've lost day games and night games, one-run games and extra-inning games games. They've lost on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday (twice), Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. They've lost in April, May and June. In fact, there is no way the Yankees haven't managed to lose to the Red Sox this season, and because of that, there is no way the Yankees can manage to feel like they are the best team in the rugged AL East.
Statistically, the two teams remain very similar. Both are in the top five in the American League in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS, home runs, runs scored and stolen bases. But the Yankees rank 12th in the AL in ERA while Boston is fourth. But the all important psychological edge that the Yankees used to hold over the Red Sox, the thought that no matter what the standings or the scoreboard said that New York was the team to beat, now resides with Boston. Never has a one-game divisional divide felt quite so cavernous as it does now between these two superpowers that have always been defined by their proximity to one another. Over the past eight seasons, the two have played 152 times (postseason included) and the Red Sox hold a meager two-game advantage (77-75) over their archrivals from just a couple hundred miles away. They have finished 1-2 in the American League standings nine times in the past 11 seasons and are on pace to do so again this year, only this time, there can be no debating which is truly the better team.
"We've had chances to beat them," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "Sometimes it just comes down to a hit here and there, us getting the big hit and them not getting it."
"They're doing a lot of little things to help them win and we're not," echoed Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who went 4-for-5 on Wednesday. "Those little things add up, and they've added up seven times for them."
Those little things were on full display on Wednesday. In the first inning, a weak-armed Johnny Damon could do nothing to prevent J.D. Drew, from scoring on a routine single to Fenway Park's famously shallow left field. Nick Swisher missed a catchable fly ball that turned into an RBI ground-rule double in the second inning. The Yankees put at least one runner on base in every inning, but went just 2-for-16 with runners in scoring position. And while the Red Sox got a quality start from Tim Wakefield (six innings, three runs), the outing by Chien-Ming Wang was anything but quality. For the second straight night, the Yankees starter failed to make it out of the third inning, with Wang following Burnett's rough start from the series opener on Tuesday by allowing four runs in just 2 2/3 innings on Wednesday.
The night's starting pitchers offered one of the many examples of the growing chasm between the two teams. In Wakefield, who moved to 8-3 with a 4.50 ERA, the Red Sox have found a reliable 42-year-old to round out a rotation so overstuffed with quality arms that the Red Sox may be forced to trade a pitcher who's 5-2 on the season (brad Penny) just to make room for 1) a future Hall of Famer (John Smoltz) and 2) a 24-year-old of such promise that he's already thrown a no-hitter in the major leagues and is 4-0 with a 1.75 ERA in the minors this year (Clay Buchholz). The Yankees, meanwhile, don't have so much of an embarrassment of riches as an embarrassment of wretches. They've watched as Wang, their erstwhile ace and a two-time 19-game winner, drop as precipitously as his once fearsome sinkerball to an 0-4 record and unsightly 14.34 ERA. Burnett's ERA is approaching 5.00, Pettitte, though still effective, is almost certain to retire at season's end, and Phil Hughes, once considered a star in the making, was bumped from the rotation in favor of Wang and sports an ERA north of 5.00 himself.
The Red Sox have thus far beaten all of those pitchers. Only CC Sabathia, who starts Thursday for New York, has yet to face the Red Sox this season. He goes to the mound giving the Yankees not only their best chance at a victory this season against the Red Sox, but their best chance to prove that they can challenge the Red Sox during the regular season and, should the two meet for the third time this decade, the postseason as well.
The playoffs may be a long way off, but it would seem the Red Sox are better equipped to succeed there as well. With a deep starting pitching staff and bullpen, playoff-tested veterans with recent postseason success and a deep bench to boot, the Red Sox have the edge over the Yankees in almost every area. The Sox have developed a core of homegrown players smartly and spent money wisely, but the Yankees have not been able to match them in either category over the past few seasons. In fact, with a top of the order multi-dimensional threat who mans an essential up-the-middle defensive position (Jacoby Ellsbury, Derek Jeter), a dangerous middle of the lineup batter who can hit for power and average (Kevin Youkilis, Bernie Williams), a crafty left-handed starter (Jon Lester, Andy Pettitte) and a hard-throwing closer (Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera) the Red Sox have built their team by all but swiping the same blueprint the Yankees used to build their championship dynasty of the late 1990s.
To the Yankees and their prideful fans, neither of whom take any joy in looking up at the Red Sox, it is an era that must seem very far away.