Commentary

Yankees have shot at sacking Sawx

Fenway sweep this weekend could bring about early end to Boston in AL East

Updated: July 7, 2012, 12:36 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Here we go again.

The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the former leading the American League East and the latter in danger of falling into the cellar, are about to spend another emotionally charged weekend together at Fenway Park.

As always, the rhetoric will be wildly overheated, the rivalry ridiculously overhyped and the importance of these games illogically oversold.

[+] EnlargeFenway Scoreboard
Barry Chin/Getty ImagesA little more of this from the Bombers could finish off the 2012 Red Sox for good.

But one thing can't be overstated, and that is the possibility, however remote, that the Yankees can put to an end the lingering notion that the Red Sox, 7½ games behind and seemingly unable to gain any real traction, are going to be a stone in their shoe if not for eternity, then at least until Oct. 3.

All it will take is a four-game sweep this weekend and maybe the Yankees can be done with this foolishness, once and for all.

This is a one of those rare Yankees-Red Sox series where nothing catastrophic can happen to the Yankees in a worst-case scenario -- if they get swept they head into the break "only" 3½ games ahead of Boston -- but something season-changing can happen in a best-case scenario.

That should take a ton of pressure off.

After their sweep-avoiding victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday afternoon, the Yankees paid the obligatory lip service to The Rivalry and gave suitable attention to The Threat posed by the Red Sox, who "can get hot at any time," you know.

Yet the Red Sox have been hot, nearly as hot as the Yankees, and have moved backward in the standings since these two teams last met in April.

On that date, April 21, the Red Sox ran off to a 7-0 lead after three innings and then became victims of what is usually their own personal weapon, their ballpark itself, as the Yankees stormed back behind three home runs, two by Mark Teixeira, to win 15-9.

At the end of the day's business, the Red Sox were 4-10, fifth in a five-team race and 4½ games behind the division-leading Yankees.

Since that date, the Red Sox are 38-30, a winning percentage of .559, better than any other team in the division. Er, except the Yankees, which have gone 40-26. In the process, the Red Sox, while tied for fourth, have lost three more games in the standings.

So even though they may have gotten better, they're not getting any closer.

The truth is, all hype aside, that the Red Sox aren't very good and aren't very healthy. The Yankees, too, are flawed and injured, but through the first half of the season, they have left little doubt which team is the one to beat in the AL East.

This weekend is a golden opportunity for the Yankees to ensure that the Red Sox have no doubt about it either.

"They're important games because they're division games, and they're before the break, and you want to finish up strong," was about the best Joe Girardi could muster when asked to play into the rivalry hype. "To me, every game is important because every win counts. And obviously you can separate yourself more when you're playing in your own division."

Well, here's the chance for the Yankees to create some real separation in the division, to put a lot more between New York and Boston than the 200 miles or so that separate the two cities.

Sweeps in this matchup are rare, especially by the visiting team, but are not unheard of. Just go back to 2006, when the Red Sox truly were a fearsome beast, to recall the Yankees coming into Fenway on Friday, Aug. 18, with a 1½-game lead over the Sox and leaving on Monday, Aug. 21, with a 6½-game lead, having taken all five games.

The Yankees wound up running off with the division by 10 games. The Red Sox didn't even make the playoffs.

This weekend could have a similar impact.

Yes, the Yankees' starting pitching is suspect. Freddy Garcia, who surrendered those seven runs in April as a prelude to losing his spot in the rotation, will be back out there Saturday due to the injuries to CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, and they will be without Mariano Rivera and Brett Gardner.

But these are not the Red Sox of 2004, 2007 or even 2006. They aren't even the Red Sox of April 21. Kevin Youkilis is gone, and Jacoby Ellsbury is on the disabled list, as are Carl Crawford and Clay Buchholz.

The names now are Ryan Kalish, Daniel Nava and Will Middlebrooks, who has been a revelation and the player who rendered Youkilis expendable.

Still, as Robinson Cano said, "The impression is they've always got a good team. They've always got good guys on the mound or acquire the pitchers that they think are going to help them win games. We're going to go there and keep playing our game, play hard and win games."

Cano is the biggest reason the Yankees won as many games as they did in June -- when they were the best team in baseball -- but he is not alone. Derek Jeter continues to spit in Father Time's eye as his average remains above .300, Curtis Granderson has more home runs than David Ortiz, and even Teixeira is showing signs of coming around. If Rafael Soriano hasn't made anyone forget Rivera, he has at least made a lot of people worry less about the ninth inning.

Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes, both of whom will pitch this weekend, look a lot better now than they did in April.

As do the Yankees, who went 20-7 in June and would like to head into the All-Star break with a full head of steam.

"You want to head into the break playing well," Teixeira said. "You don't want to go into it on a losing streak, definitely. You want to win some games so you feel good about taking a few days off."

A winning streak in Boston this weekend would make those three days off infinitely sweeter.

In the meantime, Teixeira, who knows the right things to say, professed excitement about the four games ahead.

"It's gonna be great," he said. "Every Boston-Yankees series is fun. If you get a little tired because it's the middle of the summer, these wake you up a little bit. The fans are so into it. It's like Game 7 of the World Series every game."

If the Yankees play them that way now, they may not have to worry about any games against Boston later.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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