Commentary

BoSox battle could set tone for stretch

Yanks to find out this weekend if hobbled Red Sox are contenders, spoilers or also-rans

Updated: August 6, 2010, 5:12 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

The Boston Red Sox are coming to town for four games against the New York Yankees this weekend looking like the Rasputin of baseball.

Remember Grigori Rasputin? He had a beard about as thick as Kevin Youkilis' and served in Czar Nicholas II's Russian court until 1916, or two years before the Red Sox began their infamous 86-year World Series drought. He refused to croak despite all kinds of miserable, poisonous and diabolical things that were visited on him -- sort of like the 2010 Red Sox. This year's Red Sox don't die, they just go on the disabled list -- lots of them, often two to three players at a time.

The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry isn't quite the same as it was before the Tampa Bay Rays muscled into the AL East race again this year, triangulating everyone's passion and focus and fear. This season's division race isn't the parochial little border war that New York and New England had going. That was nasty. That was fantastic.

It's just different this year.

Kevin Youkilis
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaIf the Red Sox are going to make a run, they'll have to do it without Kevin Youkilis, who was lost for the season Thursday.

Now AL East followers find themselves checking late-night highlight shows and shielding their eyes from that hideous shiny turf that the Rays play on in Tampa just to see if the Rays won or lost and how that affects the race.

Right before Saturday's trade deadline, there was actually a report that Boston would've consented to a three-way trade that would've sent Mike Lowell to the Yankees. The last time the two arch rivals swung a trade with each other was way back in 1997.

Different, right?

Tampa is the hottest team in the division -- this week, anyway.

The Yankees, who just lost two of three to the Rays over the weekend, are trying to ride out some cold hitting and A.J. Burnett's come-and-go mental meltdowns, both of which have come at a bad time for a starting rotation that's already without Andy Pettitte and will soon be obsessing about an innings limit for Phil Hughes.

Lately, the Yankees seem to have trouble scoring when they don't hit home runs. They made three moves at the trade deadline -- adding veterans Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns and reliever Kerry Wood -- while the Red Sox only added catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and sent him to Triple-A.

Boston GM Theo Epstein admitted he was disappointed he couldn't get his team more help -- maybe a heist of Jayson Werth from Philadelphia or bullpen ace Joakim Soria from Kansas City. But as it turned out, Boston was lucky it didn't move Lowell, who has been on the outs with the team for most of the season. Youkilis was put on the disabled list Tuesday with a torn muscle in his thumb. Lowell hit a home run later that night in his first at-bat -- and Thursday the Red Sox announced Youkilis would have season-ending surgery.

So the Red Sox come to town trailing the Yankees, teetering somewhere between long-shot contenders and spoilers -- even if they want to admit to be neither.

This series could breathe life back into Boston's season. Or it could strangle it out of the Red Sox for good if they limp out of town nine or 10 games back.

But they say they're still in it to win it.

And the Yankees better be careful.

It's easy to forget that just over a month ago, the Red Sox sat only a half game behind the Yankees and 1 games ahead of Tampa in the division race despite all their injuries. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia had just broken a bone in his foot. Catcher Victor Martinez broke his thumb. Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury missed most of this season with five fractured ribs. Josh Beckett was still on the DL with a bad back. Center fielder Mike Cameron was already fighting an abdominal tear that finally landed him on the disabled list Monday. The list goes on and on.

All told, the 2010 Red Sox have already used 25 position players and 22 pitchers; Youkilis is gone and Pedroia is still weeks from coming back.

Boston has this surprising bit of history going against their playoff chances too: The Red Sox have never made the playoffs when facing an Aug. 1 deficit of more than two games, and they have only made the playoffs four times in their history when facing any deficit at all this late in the season.

But, as we've already noted, these Red Sox are hard to kill. Given all that's gone wrong for them, it's amazing they headed into Thursday night's tilt against the Indians sitting 14 games over .500.

Manager Terry Francona has been a magician this season, somehow keeping his relationship intact with Red Sox slugger David Ortiz even after he pinch hit for Ortiz twice in big spots early in the season, a time when Ortiz -- who was struggling to hit .200 -- seemed on the brink of getting released.

Ortiz has since bounced back. As terrific as Youkilis had been, at times third baseman Adrian Beltre has been even better.

Whatever the 2010 Red Sox end up being -- spoiler or contender -- won't matter to the Yankees if the Yankees don't stay in the AL East race themselves.

If Boston takes three out of four from the Yankees this weekend, the Yankees will feel it's been a rough 10 days. Instead of putting some distance between the two teams chasing them in the AL East, the Yankees will have let them back into the party. But if the Yankees roll over Boston? You know how it goes. Around New York, it will feel like the good old days are back.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE