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August 29, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

And so, once again, it comes down to the Yankees and the Red Sox. These two teams have finished 1-2 five years in a row, about to be six. In the history of this rivarly, this has been the longest stretch of mutual competitiveness these two team have had. The Yankees have finished on top five years in a row, and enter this weekend's matchup 4½ game in front.

With six games remaining between the Yankees and Sox, there is only one scenario that puts the Red Sox in first place without any help from anyone else--two three game sweeps, something that seems about as likely as Alfonso Soriano walking four straight times on 16 close pitches. A split of the six games leaves the Yankees 4½ up, a lead that will be difficult for the Red Sox to make up with the easy schedule the Yankees have in September, and the Yankees winning the overall series in any way gives them a lead of at least 6½, which probably puts the final nail in the Boston coffin. Really, to have a decent shot at the division, the Red Sox need to win at least four of the six.

Those who believe in curses, or at least the details of "The Curse", will say that the division title is fait accompli, because the Red Sox always fold down the stretch, and they will again.

It's fine for a fan to think that way, it saves them from worrying, because feeling confident in the result, they don't stress themselves out watching the games unfold. However, for a journalist, this is an unforgivable sin, because it involves no analysis of the current situation, and even worse, it is not factually correct.

What is factually correct is that, in the last 80 years, the Yankees have usually come out on top when both teams are competitive. Several times, the Red Sox have remained close until late in the season, and faded down the stretch. In 1978, they blew a 14 game lead, in 1949 they lost the last two games of the season to lose the pennant to the Yankees (when one win would have clinched). In 2001, they went 18-32 in their last 50 games to fall from 2½ back to 13½ back at season's end.

Of course, in 1949, the Red Sox had come back from 3 back on 9/20 to take a 1 game lead into the final series, and in 1978 the Red Sox battled back to tie the Yankees and force a playoff game, and in 2001, the Red Sox would have had to have gone 32-18 to catch the Yankees. And of course the Red Sox have also had good Septembers to win pennants and divisions, or to stay close in the race, or to pull in close--and have knocked the Yankees out of contention several times themselves. Usually they haven't, but usually does not mean always, and have does not mean will. Just because the Red Sox usually have collapsed in September, doesn't mean the Red Sox always will.

The other part of the equation that always gets left out is the Yankees themselves. The Yankees haven't been backing their way into titles, they've earned them. In 1978 they went 51-21 down the stretch to tie the Red Sox, whose 37-35 record after 7/19 wasn't that unusual for a team leading their division by 9 games in late July. In recent seasons, the Red Sox have been knocked out of the race by disastrous late series' against the Yankees, but to put all the blame for that on the Red Sox takes away all the credit to the Yankees. The Yankees haven't won because the Red Sox didn't, they won because they're good, and it's hard to win a title from a good team.

If the Yankees win this year, they have to do it on their own, they can't expect the Red Sox to fade. I'm sure that the Yankees don't expect that to happen, but I can't say the same about most Yankees fans, or the New York media.

I do expect the Yankees to finish on top, but it's because I think that they have the better team, and the odds favor them. But I don't think the Red Sox are going away any time soon this year, and I'm positive that they'll be back and stronger next year, and the years to come. The Yankees will have to compensate for that, they'll have to get stronger to.

If there is a Curse, it's that the Red Sox won't win the World Series, not that the Yankees will always beat them. I don't much care if the Red Sox don't win the World Series, I care about the Yankees winning it. And if they don't, it doesn't really matter who wins the World Series, the failure of my team is the same.

As for this series, I think the matchup is about as even as it can get. Contreras starts against a good team for the first time tonight, and Derek Lowe has pitched far better at home than on the road. Martinez has been the best pitcher in baseball this year, but Andy Pettitte is one of the hottest right now. And Roger Clemens makes his last start in Fenway Park on Sunday afternoon against Tim Wakefield, who has been a bit schizophrenic this year. Either team can sweep this series if the breaks go right, and overall, I have to give a slight edge to Boston in the three games.

Now see, there's a column that Michael Kay would never write.