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July 18, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

The Yankees are currently at an advantage in the quality of opponent they are playing in comparison to Boston. Toronto is signifcantly better than Cleveland, and while the Yankees have won the first two versus the Tribe, the Blue Jays have knocked the Red Sox two more games back in the standings.

But after Sunday, that advantage swings big time. From Monday through mid-August, the Yankees will be playing teams who are, on average, the caliber of Toronto, while the Red Sox play teams the caliber of Indians (excluding the three head-to-head matchups). While the Yankees will have had the advantage for 4 games, the Red Sox will have it for 16, and these 16 games could decide the AL East. The Red Sox absolutely have to be in first place on August 11th, or else they will be in a position where they will have to win at least four of six from the Yankees in late August and early September. If they can't do either of those things, they're toast.

While the Yankees are still in good shape to win the division even if both of those things happen, they want to do everything they can to end this race quickly. They're an old team without much depth, and it is vital to their postseason chances that they keep their starting lineup healthy come October. If they want to be able to do that, they have to win against Cleveland. These last two games were important to win because the Yankees were expected to win them. A loss against a good team is a lost opportunity, but when you lose to a bad team, you're creating an opportunity for your competition.

Last night was a good win. Andy Pettitte pitched well; Raul Mondesi hit well; Soriano and Jeter came through in the clutch*, and Hideki Matsui broke out of a week and a half long slump with a walkoff homerun. Tonight's game was dominated by two players: Jason Giambi, who hit his 27th and 28th homers (and now has an outside shot at 50), and Armando Benitez, who came in after the rain delay (and the Yankees breaking the game open), and shut the Indians down. His only baserunner was on a ground ball single between Jeter and Zeile, and those should only count half. I'll wait until he shuts down a good hitting team in a close game to pass final judgement, but my suspiscion is that we'll see more of this Benitez than the one we saw in Shea last month.

*There is no such thing as a clutch hitter, but there is such a thing as a clutch hit. Pass it on.