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June 29, 2004

Sweet, Sweet Vengeance
by Larry Mahnken

Two pitches into last night's game, there was a sinking feeling... "Here we go again"

But Johnny Damon's home run didn't unleash a torrent of Red Sox runs down upon the Yankees, and after four innings, two months of doubt had been erased. The Yankees could beat the Red Sox after all--they could crush the Red Sox. Sure, anyone who put aside their passions could see that the team that Boston beat in April wasn't playing at it's peak, but until the rematch came, and the Yankees could win a game decisively, there were going to be doubts. And while the Yankees may still lose this series, those doubts are gone. The Yankees can beat the Red Sox.

They did it with a relentless attack, scoring in 6 of the 8 innings they batted, taking advantage of 3 Boston errors, clubbing two homers, including one into the black by Tony Clark. Derek Jeter stroked another three hits to get his average up to .272, his GPA up to .262--.411/.468/.750/1.218 (.398 GPA) since May 25th, and almost three times as many Runs Created in the last month as in the first two. Jeter's overall numbers don't warrant his likely All-Star appearance, but if he plays like he has the past month until the game, he'll have a batting average around .290, 18 HRs, and an OPS over .850--clearly warranting his spot.

So what does this victory mean, in the bigger picture? The symbolic meaning of this win is fleeting--it simply brings us back to where we were before that first game at Fenway. The practical implications of it are that it solidifies the Yankees' grip on first place, expanding the lead to a season-high 6½ games, a larger gap than any other division leader has between them and the third place team in their respective division. Greater than Chicago and Philadelphia's leads over the fourth place Indians and Braves, equal the Cardinals' lead over the fifth place Astros. While this says more about the tightness of the other races, it shows that the Yankees are where every other team aspires to be--comfortably on the top of the heap.

But the victory cinches nothing, nor would a sweep--devastating to Boston though it would be. Not with the immense talent on the Boston roster, and the potential for debilitating injuries on the Yankees'. Brian Klingensmith, a Red Sox fan friend of mine at work claimed the other day that Boston's just been toying with the Yankees for the past 85 years--just to make their ultimate victory that much more bitter for the Bombers. I pass that on for its humor, but there is a caution that comes with it: Boston will eventually beat the Yankees out, they will eventually win the World Series, some day. The Yankees rebounded in '78 later in the season from a larger deficit than Boston could possibly face entering July, and the circumstances that brought that Red Sox team down could happen to the Yankees. Celebrate the victories, rub it in--but don't ever allow yourself to believe it's over until the champagne bottles are uncorked.

The series now turns in Boston's favor, with Tim Wakefield and Pedro Martinez facing off against Jon Lieber and Brad Halsey. Wakefield's had tremendous success against the Yankees recently, and Pedro Martinez shut them down in their last meeting in April, so a series victory by Boston is still very much a possibility, almost even a probability. But if the Yankees can keep the offense going like it has in the past three games, and get reasonable outings from their starters... well, just watch. It's New York/Boston--it feels like October baseball already, and it's barely summer.