Still buying in on the Red Sox

Another year, another nail-biter for us members of Red Sox Nation.

As autumn arrives, Red Sox faithful must brace for a wild ending to an up-and-down regular season. A roller-coaster ride that started back in April with a 0-6 start has landed us here: jockeying for an American League wild-card berth with the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels.

The AL East title, once within the grasp of the Red Sox, is out of the picture because the New York Yankees clinched that Wednesday. But this weekend the Red Sox visit the hated Bronx Bombers at Yankee Stadium for their final three meetings of the regular season.

Nothing like a series against your archrival at a crucial time to see whether your players can rise to the occasion. But the Sox's 5-16 September record through Wednesday isn't a good sign that they can handle the pressure. The Rays have roared back in the standings this month, going 6-1 over the past seven games with Boston, and they've pushed the Sox to the brink.

But now that the Red Sox have reached this position (albeit desperate), it's important to see how they've under- and over-achieved this season.

The addition of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has brought consistency to the Sox lineup. His bat, glove and sheer baseball IQ had solidified the major leagues' top-ranked offense. However -- as always duly noted with the Sox -- there's a bad signing for every good one.

For this season, it's been Carl Crawford in left field.

Left field has always had a special place in my heart. I grew up with Carl Yastrzemski patrolling the Green Monster. In 1967, Yaz batted for the Triple Crown, won the MVP handily and captured an AL pennant for Boston. Yaz was a hero to 11-year-old me, and the rest of the city.

In his footsteps followed Jim Rice, another folklore legend. And in 2000, Manny Ramirez stepped in to rewrite Boston's history books. Now (as much as I tried to believe in the preseason) is Crawford's time to pick up where past legends have left off. However, he's fallen short with fewer than 20 stolen bases (his forte), a subpar average and a lack of energy/charisma/intangible effort that would have been the glue to a potential 110-plus win ballclub. On the bright side, at least he's not as bad pitcher John Lackey.

Crawford's seven-year, $142 million contract has also put longtime Sox fans in a questionable predicament. For the longest time, Boston has always smeared the Bronx for buying titles. For the past eight years New York has consistently had a payroll in the $200 million neighborhood as heavy-hitting, deep-pocketed sluggers came and went. Gradually, the Red Sox's spending has been creeping closer to the Yankees' level and obliterated the perception of the Sox as charming underdogs. This year the outrageous spending for Crawford (undeserving) and Gonzalez (deserving) has brought Boston on par with New York and has erased the distinction between buying titles and developing and building your own.

Although this heavy spending alters the rivalry a bit, there's still bad blood between these two clubs -- and that will never change.

Returning to this season, contributions from other players (Jacoby Ellsbury's breakout year) and the re-emergence of tenured Red Sox (Josh Beckett, David Ortiz) have given Boston a chance. Heading into this season-defining series versus the Yanks, it's going to come down to one facet of the game: pitching.

For both squads, pitching has been a pest this season. The starting rotations are extremely top-heavy, with New York's CC Sabathia and Boston's Beckett and Jon Lester leading the way. That's left poor Kyle Weiland, A.J. Burnett, Tim Wakefield, Phil Hughes and John Lackey to fend for themselves. And for this three-game set in New York, it's looking like the back-ends will be starting on both sides. Get ready for some fireworks.

Yet after all this commotion -- overspending by the Sox, Tampa Bay comebacks, Crawford disappointments, jockeying in the standings -- I still see the same old script playing out: The Red Sox win the wild card after the Yankees win the division. And with glaring weaknesses for future opponents Detroit and Texas in the playoffs, look for a New York-Boston matchup in the American League Championship Series.

However, this time around "The Curse" isn't on the line -- a $200 million payroll is.

Drummer Steve Riley of W.A.S.P. and L.A. Guns is a native of Revere, Mass. He's been a featured guest on numerous sports talk radio shows and sports TV programming.