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August 22, 2004

All Star/Looking in my rear view mirror
by SG

Hey now you're an All Star get your game on, go play
Hey now you're a Rock Star get the show on get paid
And all that glitters is gold
Only shooting stars break the mold

-Smash Mouth, "All Star"

Thanks to another horrendous start by Two Time All Star Esteban (PP™/TTAS™) Loaiza, with an assist to a non-existent Yankee offense, the lead over Boston has been reduced to 6.5. While it's not quite panic time yet, there is cause for concern. The fact that the Yankee offense has disappeared at the same time that they are facing potential playoff caliber opponents with good pitching staffs is not coincidental. I will at some point in the future post my feelings about the events that led to the Yankees trading Contreras for Loaiza, but I want to wait for them both to pitch a few more times to validate my initial thoughts. If you look at Larry's tracker, you can probably guess where I'm headed.

Looking in my rear view mirror,
Looking in my rear view mirror,
I can make it disappear,
I can make it disappear (have no fear),

-Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Aeroplane"

One of my favorite baseball books is The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle. It was a day-to-day journal of the season after Lyle won the Cy Young in 1977. It turned out to be an amazing chronicle of one of the most unlikely seasons in baseball history, the great Yankee comeback in the division race against Boston in 1978. I thought it might be interesting to look at the 1978 season.

Pythagorean record is often a good indicator of team quality.

Actual 1978 American League East standings:

Team Name G W L PCT GB RS RA
New York Yankees 163 100 63 .613 - 735 582
Boston Red Sox 163 99 64 .607 1.0 796 657
Milwaukee Brewers 162 93 69 .574 6.5 804 650
Baltimore Orioles 161 90 71 .559 9.0 659 633
Detroit Tigers 162 86 76 .530 13.5 714 653
Cleveland Indians 159 69 90 .433 29.0 639 694
Toronto Blue Jays 161 59 102 .366 40.0 590 775

Pythagorean 1978 standings (runs scored squared/ runs scored squared + runs allowed squared = pythag winning PCT)

Team Name G W L PCT GB RS RA
New York Yankees 163 100 63 .615 - 735 582
Milwaukee Brewers 162 98 64 .605 1.5 804 650
Boston Red Sox 163 97 66 .595 3.0 796 657
Detroit Tigers 162 88 74 .520 11.5 714 653
Baltimore Orioles 161 84 78 .545 15.5 659 633
Cleveland Indians 159 74 88 .459 25.5 639 694
Toronto Blue Jays 161 59 102 .367 40.5 590 775

According to pythag, the Red Sox weren't even the second best team in the league. Regardless, they led second place Milwaukee in the AL East by nine games on July 19. The Yankees, in fourth place, were back by fourteen. Going into September, the Boston lead over New York was cut to 7-1/2.

The weekend of September 7 is now known as "The Boston Massacre." The Yankees had a total of 67 hits, and won all four games by an average margin of over eight runs. The Red Sox committed twelve errors. It was the first time since 1943 that New York swept a four-game series at Fenway.

Sept 7.
Yankees 15, Red Sox 3

New York arrived in Boston for a four games series, four games back (with 24 remaining). Ex-Yankee Mike Torrez faced Catfish Hunter. The first inning began with Butch Hobson throwing away a routine grounder that the Yankees turned into two unearned runs. Torrez gave up four straight singles in the second and was sent to the showers. Before Boston's number-nine hitter (Hobson) had his first at-bat, Thurman Munson had three hits and the Yankees had a 7-0 lead. By the end of the fourth, the Yankees were ahead 12-2. New York finished the game with 21 hits and a 15-3 victory. Willie Randolph and Roy White joined Munson with three hits each.

Sept 8.
Yankees 13, Red Sox 2

Mickey Rivers hit Jim Wright's first pitch of the game for a single. Rivers stole second on Wright's second pitch, and advanced to third when Carlton Fisk's throw got away from Rick Burleson. Before the Red Sox rookie had delivered his third pitch, New York's leadoff hitter was on third base. Wright gave up four runs before being relieved by Tom Burgmeir in the second inning. Burgmeir gave up a single, a walk, and a homer to the first three batters he faced. Boston had seven errors that led to seven runs, and the game ended with a 13-2 Yankee victory.

Sept 9.
Yankees 7, Red Sox 0

Dennis Eckersley took his 16-6 record (9-0 at Fenway) to the mound to face Ron Guidry. Guidry worked out of trouble in the first inning, and the game was calm until the fourth. With two outs, Chris Chambliss singled. Graig Nettles walked, and Lou Piniella's single to short-center fell in between five Red Sox. Bucky Dent blooped a two-strike pitch to short left. Another walk, a passed ball, a wild pitch, and an error contributed to a total of seven Yankee runs. Those were the only runs scored, as the game ended at 7-0. Ron Guidry, throwing a two-hitter, became the first lefty to shut out Boston at Fenway in four years.

Sept 10.
Yankees 7, Red Sox 4

Boston's rookie lefthander, Bobby Sprowl, started the game by walking both Mickey Rivers and Willie Randolph. Sprowl could not make it out of the first inning. Ed Figueroa built up a 6-0 lead, and Goose Gossage finished the game with a 7-4 victory. Graig Nettles, Roy White, Thurman Munson, and Bucky Dent all had three hits.

Boston managed to fight back and eventually tie the Yankees atop the AL East, by winning their last eight scheduled games of the season, forcing one of the most famous playoff games in baseball history, the October 2, 1978 infamous Bucky Dent game.

Below is an excerpt from The Bronx Zoo about this game:

Monday, October 2 Boston
It was strange, but for a game that was so important to both teams, there was very little tension. Last night a bunch us went out and had a few drinks, and we were sitting at the hotel bar, and the general consensus was "We're gonna win tomorrow." We just knew we were going to win. And the Red Sox weren't tight because they had just had the Division championship taken away from them, and now they were getting a second chance. So they played as good a game as they could play because they felt they had absolutely nothing to lose.

It was a tremendous day, I'll tell you, it really was. It was like being in the seventh game of the World Series. Gid started and he didn't really have his good stuff 'cause he was going with only three days' rest again, but he was still good enough to hold them to two runs in six and a third, quite an accomplishment for a left- hander in Fenway. In the second Yaz got up, and he knew Gid was going to try to pump a fastball by him, and Gid got the ball up, and Yaz has such power in his hands, he just turned those wrists over and boom that ball was gone.

They scored again in the sixth when Rice singled Burleson home. Everything was real quiet in our bullpen, and I said to Tidrow, we're just teasing them. In the ninth inning, we're gonna win this son of a bitch three to two and go home. Dirt said, "I think we're gonna win eight to two.” We were both wrong-the score was actually 5 to 4--but we just knew, we had a feeling out there, that we were going to win. We had all those goose eggs up there on the scoreboard, but the way the game was going, Torrez had been lucky, and there was no way he was going to shut us out. And there wasn't.

In our half of the seventh Chambliss singled and Roy singled and Bucky Dent got up. Because Willie Randolph's still out, Fred Stanley went in to play second when Lem pinch-hit for Doyle, so they didn't pinch-hit for Bucky like they usually do. Torrez threw Bucky a slider, Bucky swung, and he hit the ball off his ankle.
Bucky went down, and when he dragged himself back up, he hobbled over to third-base coach Dick Howser, and he said, “lf that son of a bitch comes in there again with that pitch, I'm going to take him into the net.” And Torrez threw it in there again, and bang there it went. Bucky hit it into the net for a three-run homer.

In the bullpen we were laughing because our shortstops have devastated Torrez. In June, Stanley hit that grand slam off him, and now Bucky hit this three-runner. Seven RBI's in two swings. Torrez just can't get our shortstops out! Then Rivers walked and stole second, and he scored when Thurman doubled off reliever Bob Stanley.

When Reggie got up in the eighth, Mr. October, as he likes to call himself, hit another home run to make it 5 to 2. Despite the fact that Reggie at times can be hard to take, there's no question that in the big games, he can get way up and hit the hell out of the ball. No one's ever denied him that. I can't figure out why he does it, but he does it. I think that in the big games a pitcher has a tendency to be finer around the plate, and that makes the hitter more selective. If Reggie could concentrate all year long like he does in the play-offs and the Series games, his records would be unbelievable. Reggie's so strong, and he has-so much power that a pitcher can't fool with him. If he makes a mistake, and Reggie gets his bat on it, Reggie swings such a heavy bat that it's gone.

Goose relieved Gid in the seventh and got the last two outs, but in their half of the eighth, the Red Sox came back with two runs against him. Remy doubled, Yaz singled to drive him in, Fisk singled, and Lynn singled for their fourth run.

They got us out in tie top of the ninth, so the score was still 5-4 ours when Boston batted in the bottom of the inning. Goose walked Burleson with one out. Remy then hit a line drive to Piniella in right. Lou lost it in the sun, which was beating right in his eyes, but he pretended he was going to catch it, pounding his glove, so Burleson had to hold up and could only go to second when the ball bounced in front of him. That won the game for us, cause Rice flied out, and had Burleson been on third, he would have tagged and scored and tied up the game. With Burleson on second, though, it was just a harmless fly ball.

Now there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The Red Sox were down to their last batter: Carl Yastrzemski. I had seen the way the game was going, and l was heating up pretty good in the bullpen cause l thought to myself, ''Goddamn, the way this is going, I'm going to face Yaz if he comes up in the ninth.'' Even Tidrow had said, "They're gonna be using you. Stay ready.” I guess he figured Yaz is left-handed and they'd bring me in to face the lefty.

If I could have gone in there and gotten him out and saved the game, that one out would have let me be part of something. Just one fucking out, which is all it would have been. I've always been able to get Yaz out, and if ever there was a time to bring me in: this was it.

I stood out in the bullpen waiting for Lemon to come out of the dugout and get Goose. Lemon, however, never left the bench. He left Goose. in to pitch to Yaz. I said, “Screw it,” and I stopped warming up.
I suppose I should have been annoyed, pissed off, angry, but I wasn't any of those things. You gotta look at it from Lem's way too. When you have a reliever like Goose-just like I was last year-you gotta go with the guy all the way. You can't be making too many moves.

Yaz stepped in, Goose fired the ball in there, and Yaz sent a high pop behind third. When Graig settled under the ball and caught it and the game was over, suddenly I felt a tremendous surge of happiness come over me. Even though I had hardly contributed at all, for the first time since the spring I really felt part of this team. l was proud of what we did, and all the records the team set. I was happy for Guidry, who won his twenty-fifth, and I felt happy for Goose, who got his twenty-seventh save. I was thinking about how no other team in the entire history of baseball had ever done that. The events were rushing through my mind. There were so many things that happened to this team this year, I’ll probably remember this season more than any other season of my baseball career.

Anyone who wants a day-by-day description of the 1978 season from a Yankee player perspective should check this book out.

The point of all this, is that there are quite a few Red Sox fans who are pointing to 2004 as 1978 in reverse. They are hoping for another parade, like this one from the last time they won it all. This time, the Yankees are the team that jumped out to the big division lead, and the Red Sox are the team that is trying to pull off the miraculous comeback. As a Yankee fan, I mocked this thought process, especially after what looked to be a horrendous trade of Nomar Garciaparra for two mediocre players. However, the events of the last few days have caused me to look at this scenario in a new light. Granting that the Yankees have had the more difficult schedule in August, the Red Sox have still done what they needed to do, and get the deficit reduced. With the Yankee rotation still suspect, and with Sheffield hurting, it's not unreasonable that the Red Sox could overtake them. Another problem for the Yankees with this is that resting the bullpen is now not an option for Joe Torre, as he doesn't have the luxury of the "safe" lead. This could possibly have an impact in September, and the postseason if they get there.
On August 15 the Yankees held a 10.5 game lead over Boston.

As of August 21 the Yankees now hold a 6.5 game lead over Boston.

Pythagorean standings

Team Name G W L PCT GB RS RA
Boston Red Sox 121 72 49 .593 - 697 578
New York Yankees 122 67 55 .552 5.5 668 602
Baltimore Orioles 121 58 63 .476 14.0 622 652
Toronto Blue Jays 123 54 69 .442 19.0 540 607
Tampa Bay Devil Rays 123 53 70 .431 20.0 530 609

Looking a little deeper into the standings, using Baseball Prospectus' adjusted standings(these haven't been updated since Friday 8/20):

Boston Red Sox 67. 52. 677 570 69.4 49.6 695 529 74.9 44.1 698 536 74.4 44.6 -2.4 -7.9 -7.4
New York Yankees 76. 44. 667 591 67.1 52.9 665 571 68.8 51.2 677 576 69.4 50.6 8.9 7.2 6.6
Baltimore Orioles 57. 62. 614 628 58.2 60.8 619 612 60.1 58.9 625 620 60.0 59.0 -1.2 -3.1 -3.0
Tampa Bay Devil Rays 55. 66. 525 595 53.4 67.6 523 580 54.7 66.3 533 571 56.6 64.4 1.6 0.3 -1.6
Toronto Blue Jays 49. 72. 516 599 52.1 68.9 521 602 52.3 68.7 533 598 54.0 67.0 -3.1 -3.3 -5.0

According to component stats, the Red Sox are a better team than the Yankees. I always take these kinds of things with a grain of salt, because not all runs are equal, and as the margin of the game increases, the value of each subsequent run scored or allowed decreases. If a team suffers a lot of blowout wins or losses, it can skew these numbers. The common belief is that these types of things even out of the course of a season, so let's assume that these numbers have some validity for comparison. The Yankees have outperformed their expected win total by 9, while the Red Sox have underperformed theirs by 3. If we assume that the current trends continue, the two teams would approach their true talent level. Boston has won 57% of their games, but should have won 59%. Therefore, they could reasonably expect to win 24 of their remaining 41 games. The Yankees, have won 62% of their games, but their run differential projects to a 56% winning percentage. Therefore, with 40 games left, they would win 22 of them. If both things happened, the Yankees would lose only 1.5 more games in the standings to Boston, and still finish the division comfortably ahead.

There are other things to consider though. First off, the Yankees have the easier schedule in September.

Games remaining for Boston
1 @ Chicago
3 @ Toronto
4 vs. Detroit
3 vs. Anaheim
3 vs. Texas
3 @ Oakland
3 @ Seattle
3 vs. Tampa Bay
3 @ Yankees
4 vs. Baltimore
3 vs. Yankees
3 @ TB
4 @ Baltimore

Games remaining for the Yankees
1 vs. Anaheim
3 @ Cleveland
4 @ Toronto
3 vs. Cleveland
3 vs. Baltimore
5 vs. Tampa Bay
3 @ Baltimore
3 @ Kansas City
3 vs. Boston
3 vs. Toronto
3 @ Boston
3 vs. Minnesota

More importantly, the two teams have six games remaining against each other, Sept 17-19 at New York, and then Sept 24-26 at Boston.

If the Yankees are unable to maintain at least a five game lead heading into that first series, a repeat of 1978 would not be unlikely in my opinion. While the loser of the divisional race would still have the wild card to fall back on, the impact of Boston coming from behind to take the East could be huge for both teams. This would give Boston home field advantage in an ALCS matchup, and it could also manifest in the games on the field, and through panic moves in the front office. It would be exciting to watch, and great for baseball, but as a Yankee fan, I sure as hell hope it doesn't happen. Boston deserves a lot of credit for hanging tough in what has been a difficult season for them, both injury-wise and with their bad luck/underperforming at times.