It wasn't so long ago the Yankees had a sadistic plan to break the Red Sox's hearts, inching close enough to first place that a 1978-like comeback was actually becoming a reality. The Bombers were within four games, bolstered with fresh new arms (rookies Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain) and a resurrected offense that seemed destined to score 1,000 runs.
There was a growing drumbeat of panic (or gloating, depending on your mailing address), leading to the biggest showdown of the season -- a three-game series in the Bronx, beginning tonight. But just as the two rivals were set to collide, like matter intersecting with anti-matter, the series has lost its relevance.
The Sox are now eight games in front, needing only one win in New York to effectively end the race, if it isn't already over.
Coming off a 2-5 road trip, the Yankees' crisis turned critical after an embarrassing 16-0 loss to the Tigers on Monday, which effectively ended Mike Mussina's reign as a front-line starter. Without saying so publicly, the Bombers are now eyeing a more significant series next week against the Mariners.
But already two games out in the wild-card race, the Yankees could be in jeopardy of missing the playoffs altogether, for the first time since 1993. As Derek Jeter told reporters on Monday, "It goes without saying that we need to play better at home. We need to play well from this point on. There is a sense of urgency here."
The last team the Yankees need to see are the Red Sox, whom White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen anointed as the team to beat in the American League. The Red Sox know Yankee Stadium will be at its normal rivalry-settings -- loud and hostile -- but being on the road hasn't bothered them. Boston is 40-28 away from Fenway Park, and is about to get a reprieve from the schedule-maker. Eighteen of the Sox's final 31 games are at home, 13 of them against the Devil Rays and Orioles.
Boston doesn't even have to play .500 to finish with 95 wins; 15-16 will do the trick. What's that mean for the Yankees? Besides the obvious need for a sweep at the Stadium, and another sweep at Fenway Sept. 14-16, the Bombers are considering two critical issues before the Mariners arrive on Sept. 3.
The first is Mussina's stunning collapse; he's allowed 19 earned runs in his last 9.2 innings, including six in three innings against the Tigers Monday night. The right-hander has been leaking velocity in the last month, and, down to 86 mph, told reporters after the game, "Probably the last nine innings are the worst nine innings that I've pitched in my whole career, in a row. I don't even know how to describe it because I've never had to deal with it before."
Torre will meet with Mussina and pitching coach Ron Guidry before deciding who'll take the ball on Saturday, Mussina's next scheduled start. But the choices are limited: it's too late in the season to reconvert Chamberlain into a starter. Kei Igawa has been a start-to-finish failure. And Ian Kennedy, another rookie prospect, is obviously too young and too untested to trust in September.
One way or another, Mussina will be dropped from the rotation if and when the Yankees get to the playoffs, even with a career 3.40 ERA in 22 postseason games. But getting there is the problem, as the Sox are poised to end the Bombers' run of nine consecutive division titles.
Still, the Yankees believed they were as dangerous as any team in the AL before taking on the Tigers, having averaged 6.4 runs per game since the last time they faced the Red Sox in early June.
Thanks largely to Alex Rodriguez, the Bombers now lead the American League in virtually every offensive category, including runs, home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. The vibe that opposing pitchers sensed was unmistakable: we're going to get you. Yet, the Yankees are 31-35 on the road this year, including losing three of four at Comerica Park this past weekend.
While that was happening, the Red Sox were completing their public flogging of the White Sox, who were outscored 46-7 during a four-game sweep. One American League official says despite the Bombers' firepower, "to me, the Red Sox are still the most balanced team" in the league. Incredibly, the X factor is Hideki Okajima, who's holding the league to a .172 average.
Boston Red Sox
One Yankee veteran had this to say about the left-hander after hitting against him in April.
"I couldn't pick up the ball, couldn't see it out of his hand," the Yankee said. "He does something different, whatever it is, I couldn't figure it out."
For most of the season, the Red Sox's advantage in the bullpen separated them from the Yankees. But the gap has been closed, now that Chamberlain has replaced Scott Proctor and Kyle Farnsworth is finally throwing strikes on the corners. But GM Brian Cashman's edict that Chamberlain be given a full day's rest after every appearance will be sorely tested in September, if not this week against Boston.
Clearly, Cashman is protecting Chamberlain from Torre, on whose watch set-up men like Proctor, Tanyon Sturtze and Paul Quantrill all flamed out. But Cashman's overreaction hasn't gone unnoticed, and that's Issue No. 2; one player dryly observed that no one objects when 35-year-old Andy Pettitte throws more than 100 pitches in a start, and then is asked to work out of the bullpen two days later (it's happened twice this year).
Joba's rules may soon give way to October's golden rule, which is more like a warning to anyone obsessing over first place -- Yankees and Red Sox both. Come the postseason, it's better to be hot than good.
"Trust me: If you can guarantee me that winning the division gets us to the World Series, then I want to win the division," Mike Lowell told the Boston Herald. "But I want to be the team that's hot."
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.