Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees cement status as game's titans

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1. I'll take the Big Three, you can have The Field

Remember when the Orioles were the early flavor of the month in April by starting 6-1? Remember that 30-15 start by the Indians? Weren't the Pirates a fun story about five minutes ago? Weren't the Rockies and Twins supposed to get hot in the second half?

The 162-game season, as Baltimore manager Buck Showalter likes to say, does not allow for Cinderella. Two-thirds through it, the season coldly has revealed the same truth that was obvious before it began: For a fifth straight year baseball is about whether anybody can beat the Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees, the definitive three best teams in baseball.

As I wrote before camps opened, "there are two tiers of teams in baseball: the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox -- teams for which success is nothing less than a World Series title -- and everybody else." Spare me the angst about the Phillies' bullpen, the health of Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz or how Yankees manager Joe Girardi might order his postseason rotation. Nobody is winning the World Series without getting through The Corridor -- the 309 miles between Citizens Bank Park and Fenway Park, home to baseball's superpowers.

The defending champs, the Giants, are the worst offensive team since the All-Star break, have substituted one aging shortstop (Orlando Cabrera) for another (Miguel Tejada) and are banking on a guy who never was or wanted to be an alpha hitter (Carlos Beltran) to be an alpha hitter.

How much better are The Big Three than everybody else? When this week began, not only did they rank 1-2-3 in run differential, but also they were at least 27 percent better at outscoring opponents than all others. Take a look at where the Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees rank in major league baseball in winning percentage, run differential, winning percentage against lefthanders (all supposedly are "vulnerable" to lefties), home record and -- let's not ignore the obvious -- payroll:

That's a lot of 1s, 2s and 3s. Here's another measurement I like to look at: walk differential, which measures how many more free baserunners you get than you give:

1. Phillies +103

2. Yankees +86

3. Cardinals +81

4. Red Sox +69

It's not exactly 1-2-3, but you get the point. The Phillies (who could be the best team in franchise history), Red Sox and Yankees are actually much better than people think. All are locks for the postseason, which will mean that out of 15 possible playoff spots between them over the past five years they will have claimed 13 of them. The Big Three have been represented in each of the past six League Championship Series, and seven of the past eight.

And then there is this: Only one of the past 13 world champions wasn't from among The Big Three or had to go through one of them. The 2006 Cardinals, winners of just 83 regular season games, had the great fortune of playing the Padres, Mets and Tigers.

2. The Yankees and Red Sox play unnecessarily long games

Granted, the between-innings breaks are longer because of national television and they are the two top scoring teams that grind out at-bats. I get it. But even given that, the players -- pitchers, batters and catchers - waste way too much time between pitches.

Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, now baseball's vice president of baseball operations, understands why the game slows down when the Red Sox and Yankees play: "There's so much attention on these games that there is a lot on the line. I can't even say it's pennant race implications, because the same thing happens early in the season."

Baseball does have rules about pace of game. A pitcher must deliver a pitch within 12 seconds with no one on or else a ball is added to the count. But what good are the rules when they never are enforced? No umpire has enforced the rule in two years -- since Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon was targeted in 2009.

With the help of MLB Network last night, I broke down some of the sequences of Red Sox righthander Josh Beckett. In selected innings, he averaged 23 seconds between pitches with nobody on and 43 seconds with runners. He once took 59 seconds between pitches to Eric Chavez!

So what if the Yankees and Red Sox think their games are more important than everybody else's? They're not. Enforce the rule.

Umpire Joe West took heat in recent years for calling out the Yankees and Red Sox for their slow play. But guess what? The guy was dead on.

(By the way, did you notice that MLB broke up West and Angel Hernandez, who used to work on the same crew? Too many confrontations with those two in the same crew. Give MLB credit for addressing it.)

Now Torre and commissioner Bud Selig have to prod the umpires to start enforcing the rule, while making sure they have their full support. A cynic could suggest these long games are good for concession sales and ratings. (Indeed, the Sunday night game did a huge number -- as does most every sporting event that goes past 11:30 p.m. Eastern because you pick up viewers after the late local news and from the West Coast. It was the highest-rated Sunday Night game of the year and 33 percent better than Yankees-Red Sox from the same weekend last year.) But there is a cost to such "benefits:" your sport becomes associated with tedium.

3. Terry Francona risks losing his job if he keeps this up

I kid here. Having already called a squeeze play to try to win a game last month (it failed because Marco Scutaro missed a sign) the manager of the bunt-averse Red Sox won the game Sunday with the help of -- gulp! -- a sacrifice bunt.

Francona, down by one run against Mariano Rivera, gave up one of his three remaining outs when he had MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury bunt with the tying run on second.

It's a rare day when Francona orders a sac bunt with his team trailing at Fenway Park in the eighth or ninth inning. How rare? It was only the fourth time he did it in eight years as Boston manager.

The bunt -- even a poor one - worked because Eduardo Nuñez, who seems to have no defensive instincts, was lost at third base. Dustin Pedroia then tied the game with a sacrifice fly.

Boston followed that shocker with a seventh-inning sac bunt Monday by Carl Crawford. It was a lousy play because it took the bat out of the hands of Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, who was walked, and led to a double-play grounder by Pedroia.

It was more evidence that this is a season Gene Mauch would love. Last week the Rays -- in the second inning of an AL game -- bunted three straight times, twice on squeeze plays. Davey Johnson, an Earl Weaver disciple who abhors the squeeze play, won a game for the Nationals this year with a squeeze.

If you think bunting is making a comeback, you would be right. We are on a pace for 1,669 sacrifice bunts this year, an eight percent increase from last year and the most since 2004.