When the Red Sox suffered through a 2-6 stretch capped by a sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox earlier this month, it was assumed that their chances of making the playoffs were no longer. There were too few games remaining against the wild card-leading Tampa Bay Rays. The division-leading New York Yankees? You could forget about them.
The Yankees were 10 games up on the Sox and had recently won eight in a row. New York's coronation would come soon enough.
What a difference a week makes, even one in which Boston has not lit the world on fire.
The Red Sox, who have gone just 4-3 since that slump, have gained three games in that time on the suddenly second-place Yankees, against whom they still have six games remaining. The most recent victory came in large part due to Jon Lester, who struck out 12 Mariners and allowed just one run over eight innings. RBIs from the Pawtucket crew of Ryan Kalish, Daniel Nava, Lars Anderson and Josh Reddick provided plenty of offense for the win, and Daniel Bard shut the door in the ninth.
It presents an unexpected scenario that just might give Boston a shred of hope — long thought forgotten — in the chase for a postseason spot.
What makes the dream even less far-fetched, aside from the six head-to-head meetings between the two rivals, is the fact that New York looks nothing like the team that paced the major leagues through the first five months of the season. Aside from CC Sabathia, there is not one starter the Yanks can bank on. They've lost Sabathia's last two starts anyway, including Monday's 1-0 loss in 11 innings at Tampa.
Once past Sabathia, opponents face a group that seems to weaken by the day. A.J. Burnett is 3-6 with a 5.82 ERA since the All-Star break. Phil Hughes is 5-5 with a 5.37 mark in that stretch, and has failed to last longer than six innings in 10 straight starts.
Rookie Ivan Nova has been good but has only four major league starts under his belt. Just one has lasted as long as six innings. Javier Vazquez, who has Burnett and Hughes beat with a 6.20 ERA since the break, is likely out of the rotation once Andy Pettitte returns Sunday. Pettitte is 38 and hasn't pitched in almost two months due to a strained left groin.
Not quite the quintet that had surpassed Boston's heralded rotation earlier in the year. The offense has not helped.
New York has scored three runs or fewer in six games during its current 1-8 stretch. In addition, injuries continue to hamper the Bronx Bombers. Unlike Boston's bang-ups, which have a degree of finality to them, New York's are nagging, creating a daily headache for manager Joe Girardi when he fills out the lineup card.
After the Yankees' loss Monday night, which saw regulars Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher kept out of the starting lineup with various ailments, they had five other regulars (Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Curtis Granderson) all batting below .270. The ninth starter, Robinson Cano, is hitting .213 (10-for-47) with one extra-base hit, a double, in September.
There just isn't much for Girardi to hang his hat on, whether on the mound or at the plate. And six times he will have to fill out that lineup card and hand the ball to one of those pitchers when the opponent, potentially, has visions of taking over New York's playoff spot.
The Red Sox may never catch the Yankees. They may never even get close. But for a solid week, they have been the better team and nearly three more weeks remain, the last two of which are filled with potentially meaningful games between the old rivals.