If you were busy watching Jonathan Papelbon melt down in the ninth inning at Fenway on Tuesday night, you missed an important development coming out of the other end of the East Coast: The Yankees are mortal once again.
With their ace CC Sabathia on the hill, the Yanks faltered in Tampa Bay, losing 6-2 to Scott Kazmir and the Rays. The Rays jumped on CC early and often, getting ahead 3-0 in the third, and didn't look back. For Sabathia, it was his first loss since the All-Star break.
But it's only one game.
The Yankees have still won 23 of their last 30, and they now appear to be not only a serious threat to win the American League East (which they currently lead by 2 1/2 games), but possibly the best team in baseball. It's hard to believe that just a couple of months ago, the Yanks were seven games out.
These things come in cycles. The Yankees and Red Sox have fought for first place in the AL East ever since the Blue Jays lost control of the division lead back in April. And one team leading by a couple of games doesn't necessarily mean anything until the last few weeks of the season. Still, you can't expect these Bronx Bombers to go away.
The advantage they have is that at every single position on the field, they have someone that can produce at the plate. They have zero weak links. Their second baseman hits .311 with 26 doubles. Their shortstop has put up an OBP of .402. Their catcher has 28 extra-base hits, 13 of them doubles, despite having sat out three weeks in May. Even where you don't expect to find big bats, you're seeing them on this Yankees club. There are no holes.
For the Red Sox, the only hope is that holes emerge on the rivals' pitching staff.
Sabathia and A.J. Burnett make a solid top two, a good foundation both for now and for October. But after that? There's Joba Chamberlain, who's supremely talented but still needs to limit his innings. There's Andy Pettitte, who has the championship background but is 37 and showing signs of decline. And there's Sergio Mitre, who may or may not be fit for the major leagues.
That's it. Forget about Phil Hughes, who's been relegated to an eighth-inning role and isn't moving any time soon. Chien-Ming Wang is done for the season. The Yankees have five starting pitchers, and if any one of them goes down, they'd best pray for rain.
Their bullpen is decidedly average. Mariano Rivera is still great, and Hughes has been solid of late, but questions surround the rest of the staff. There's no one you can trust in a crucial seventh inning at, say, Fenway.
Are the Yankees the team to beat right now? Probably. With their current lead and an offense like that, it's hard to deny them. But they're mortal. That pitching staff is far from perfect, and you never know when it might crack.
It's a long marathon from game one to No. 162. Along the way, there will be bumps in the road. But a 2 1/2-game deficit doesn't mean there's cause for panic in Red Sox Nation.
There's a lot of race left to go, and this one's still up in the air. The Bronx Bombers may be the team to beat — but in that case, who's the team to beat them?
I think we all know the answer to that one.
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