Forecast calls for heated AL East race

If there was anything to be learned from three games in Boston between the Yankees and Red Sox this past weekend, it was simply this: Nobody is running away with the AL East this season.

Those three games, two of which were won by the Red Sox, serve to remind us of why preseason predictions aren't worth the paper they're written on or the cyberspace they consume.

In all of the careful, if gushing, analysis of Boston's offseason moves, not one of the expert prognosticators correctly predicted that the mighty Sox would trip out of the gate and not get up until six games had already passed them by.

And amid all the preseason hand-wringing over the dire state of the Yankees' starting rotation, nowhere was it even considered that Phil Hughes might turn out to be a bigger problem than A.J. Burnett.

When it comes to inexact sciences, predicting the performance of baseball teams is about as accurate as forecasting the weather. Look out the window each morning and you have as much chance of guessing right as any of the so-called "experts," including the genius writing this column.

(I was at least smart enough to make myself scarce when the editors at ESPNNewYork.com were calling for predictions, because none of us really knows what's going to happen and readers, bless them, tend only to remember your picks when they go disastrously wrong.)

Part of the problem is that there are so many known, proven commodities on both rosters that everyone thinks they know all about these two teams, and can accurately predict what all of them will do.

But that does not factor in the many variables that affect a baseball season, including injuries, random occurrences on the field and the very length of the season itself. The performances of individual players may be possible, and for some, even easy to project -- the old Back of the Baseball Card theory -- but the performance of 25 individuals, not including role players who will shuffle in and out over the course of a season and trade deadline acquisitions?

You'd have a better shot at picking the winners of maiden claiming races with a hatpin at Aqueduct in February.

And by the way, can anyone be sure that the Tampa Bay Rays are really as bad as they've looked so far? Or that the Orioles aren't really as good as they've looked?

In any event, what the Yankees and Red Sox showed us this weekend is that there's really not all that much separating these two teams, and that anyone who predicts a rout for either one is probably afflicted with some form of terminal hubris or rampant homerism.

The truth is, both teams can hit and score runs in bunches, especially at Fenway, and neither team is particularly adept at preventing runs, unless either of its aces is pitching.

Yes, Hughes is a problem for the Yankees, and so, too, might be Ivan Nova. But what about John Lackey and Clay Buchholz? Lackey "earned" a win Friday night with a performance that might have gotten him cut from some other Red Sox teams. Still, compared to his first outing, it lowered his ERA from 22.00 to 16.50. Buchholz was simply horrendous on Saturday in the Yankees' 9-4 victory.

And of course, on Sunday, although Josh Beckett was outstanding, CC Sabathia did what he generally does: namely keep his team in the ballgame for as long as possible until the Yankees' bullpen put the game out of reach.

But given their respective histories, next time that result could easily reverse itself.

So how much was there, really, to choose between these two teams?

"I think we're going to have a lot of tough games with them," Joe Girardi said of the Red Sox. "I think there's no doubt about it. We were able to win one, we had a chance to win really two out of three."

And that was with no Yankees starter lasting six innings, and even more incredibly, no Yankees starter even throwing a single 1-2-3 inning.

And it was with virtually no production out of the top four slots in the Yankees' batting order. Although the Yankees scored 15 runs in the series -- all of them in the first two games -- the 1-through-4 hitters in their order combined to go 7-for-46 with one home run and three RBIs.

Although there may be lingering doubts about how far Derek Jeter will rebound from his subpar 2010 season or how much Jorge Posada has left, you know that over the course of the season, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira are going to hit.

So will Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.

The key to who will win the AL East lies with the pitching, and off the first nine games of the season and the three I saw this weekend, it appears there are just as many question marks throwing for the Red Sox as there are for the Yankees, not the least of whom is their closer, Jonathan Papelbon, who was spectacular this weekend but was 0-3 against the Yankees last year, allowing four home runs in 10 1/3 innings and running up a 6.97 ERA.

Who's to say he won't melt down against them, or anyone, in crucial situations later this season?

The truth is, for a matchup between a supposedly prohibitive favorite and a self-proclaimed "underdog," the Yankees and Red Sox looked like a pair of pretty evenly matched teams this weekend.

The strengths both possessed last year remain strengths this year, their weaknesses are yet to be shown to have been overcome. And, as managers like to say, there is still a lot of baseball to be played and a lot of unforeseen occurrences yet to take place.

The Red Sox won two of three this weekend, but the series could just as easily have gone the other way. And the Yankees already have a three-length head start right out of the gate.

But anybody who believes one team is going to run away with the AL East just hasn't been paying close enough attention to the teams involved or the sport they play.

Unless, of course, the Baltimore Orioles turn out to be for real.

Then you'll really understand what the opinions of so many preseason experts are truly worth.

NOTES: Probable pitching matchups for the three-game series with Baltimore that begins Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium: A.J. Burnett (2-0, 4.09) vs. RHP Chris Tillman (0-0, 3.38); Phil Hughes (0-1, 16.50) vs. TBA on Wednesday night; Ivan Nova (1-0, 6.10) vs. RHP Jake Arrieta (1-1, 8.68) on Thursday.