- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry ain't what it used to be, and there's a very simple reason.
In order for a matchup of two teams to truly be called a rivalry, the teams don't necessarily have to be good. But they must be competitive, at least against each other.
Right now, the Boston Red Sox are neither good nor competitive.
For the moment at least, the Yankees aren't very good either, having lost five of seven games on their just-concluded West Coast trip, but with nearly 100 games of the regular season already in the books, we can draw one conclusion rather safely: They are better than the Red Sox. A lot better.
It was 20 days ago, just before the All-Star break, when I wrote a column raising the very real possibility the Yankees could sweep the Red Sox at Fenway and put an end to the charade that Boston could still be a force in the AL East this season.
And they came pretty darned close, winning three out of four and heading into the break 9 1/2 games ahead of their erstwhile rivals.
The only thing that has changed over those three weeks is that now, even though the Yankees have played poorly the past week, the Red Sox are 10 1/2 games back.
There was a time was when you could disregard numbers like those in July -- remember back to 2009, when the Yankees started out 0-8 against the Red Sox and wound up winning the World Series? -- but not this year.
Waiting for the Red Sox to hit that hot streak is like waiting for Alex Rodriguez to start hitting like it's 2007 again. Fanciful, unrealistic notions rooted in notstalgia, not reality.
The truth is, the Red Sox are doormats this year, and their only function this weekend at Yankee Stadium is to serve as slump-busters for the home team.
The difference between what the 2009 Yankees were able to do and what the Red Sox are unlikely to do is this: The 2009 Yankees were bad against Boston and good against virtually everyone else, and even after having lost those eight in a row, they were still just two games behind, waiting to strike like Forego stalking a leisurely pace.
The 2012 Red Sox have been bad against just about everyone, and while they can hold out hope of at least one postseason game due to the new double wild-card format, any real optimism about making a postseason run has to fall into the realm of fantasy.
Incredible as it may seem, I am told Red Sox fans don't know which to hate more this season, their own team or its manager, Bobby Valentine. In that hatefest, the Yankees are a distant third.
And there's no reason to believe the Red Sox can reverse their fortunes this weekend in the Bronx. The pitching matchups -- Phil Hughes vs. Aaron Cook, CC Sabathia vs. Jon Lester and Hiroki Kuroda vs. Felix Doubront -- all favor the Yankees.
Cook has faced the Yankees once, two years ago as a Colorado Rockie, and got lit up for six runs in 5 2/3 innings. Lester, who has had a dreadful season (5-8, 5.46), couldn't get out of the fifth inning when he faced the Yankees in that final series before the break.
And while Doubront pitched well against the Yankees in their first meeting in April -- his six-inning, one-run performance turned out to be a footnote to the Yankees' 15-9 comeback win at Fenway, a game that turned out to be symbolic of Boston's entire season -- the Yankees showed signs of decoding his mysteries on July 7, getting home runs from Mark Teixeira and Andruw Jones.
Only a poor performance out of the bullpen in that game by the since-departed Cory Wade stood between the Yankees and what would have been a backbreaking four-game sweep that weekend.
The Sox played without Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Carl Crawford that weekend, but they have returned to the lineup and it hasn't made any difference -- Boston is 6-7 since the break and comes to New York a last-place team with a record a game below mediocrity at 49-50.
The division race is largely over -- even if the Yankees were to play .500 ball the rest of the way and finish at 91-71, a highly unlikely outcome, the Red Sox would have to play .667 ball (42-21) just to tie -- and the only carrot left for them seems to be finishing as the fifth-best team in the AL, also known as the second wild card.
But to this point the Red Sox have not shown the character to overcome their considerable injuries the way the Yankees, equally hard-hit, have, nor has their starting pitching staff shown itself to be anything but highly overrated.
The Yankees are far from healthy -- A-Rod's broken hand Tuesday night added to an injured list that includes Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Brett Gardner, Joba Chamberlain and Michael Pineda -- but they have demonstrated an indisputable ability to rise above adversity, plus a depth in both bench players and pitchers that has allowed them to thrive under conditions in which other teams -- hint, hint -- have folded up.
In past seasons, a Yankees-Red Sox series could transcend the woes of either or both of the teams involved, simply through pride, ability and the force of the rivalry itself.
But not this year.
In 2012, the Yankees and Red Sox are no longer rivals.
In fact, one of them is a doormat.