Stakes raised for Yanks, Red Sox

NEW YORK -- The usual disclaimers -- especially the it's-still-too-early-to-obsess-over-the-standings -- no longer apply in the AL East. Not now, not when the pennant race is at September's doorstep, and the Yankees and Red Sox are separated by just 4½ games, poised for a six-game collision this weekend and next.

The northeast's annual apocalypse has officially arrived, which is good news for anyone wondering what to make of this division's rapidly-changing landscape. Finally, the answers are in front of us:

Are the Yankees really as vulnerable to power-hitting teams as they were to Chicago's? Is the Red Sox's lineup so unstoppable that even elite-caliber opponents like the Mariners are convinced they're stealing signs?

The possibilities drift into infinity, but at least this much is certain: this race, which seemed ready to evaporate a week ago, has taken on a new urgency, now that the Yankees' 7½-game lead has been shaved practically in half. And that's why this weekend's three-game series at Fenway Park feels like a war-in-waiting.

"Every time we go up there, you have to be mentally ready," Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte said. "They're such a good team and they're playing really well now. They feel close."

The Red Sox's surge, which includes a four-game sweep of the Mariners, is contrasted by the Yankees' disastrous week against the White Sox. It took Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera -- the club's first and last line of defense -- to keep the Bombers from getting swept in a three-game series, as they scored five runs in the first inning and held on for a 7-5 win on Thursday.

But after allowing the White Sox 24 runs in the first two games, the Yankees came face-to-face with some of their own vulnerabilities. Roger Clemens allowed four home runs in 4.2 innings on Tuesday, in one of the worst outings of his career. David Wells, who isn't scheduled to start against Boston, was equally helpless the next night, allowing 10 runs in 5.1 innings.

Wells' recent slump could impact the rotation into September, especially if his strained lower back doesn't heal. An inability to properly follow through was one of the factors in Wells' lack of velocity on Wednesday, although it's unclear whether he was injured before taking the mound. The issue is clouded by an incentive clause in Wells' contract, which pays $183,000 for every start he makes down the stretch.

Was Wells pitching at less than 100 percent, just to collect an additional paycheck? The Yankees stopped short of suggesting that. Manager Joe Torre said, "I'd like to believe winning is more important than bonuses. If that's the reason you're going out there, you're letting everyone down. That's why I refuse to believe that."

If Wells is getting the benefit of the doubt regarding his contract, the Yankees are still leaning on him to become more diligent in his between-starts regimen. Most significantly, the Yankees want Boomer to throw in the bullpen on off-days, a practice he disdains.

Torre left open the possibility that Wells -- whose next two scheduled starts would be Monday in Toronto and next Saturday against Boston in New York -- could be replaced by Jeff Weaver. It all depends on whether Wells and Torre clear the air in the next two days.

That means the Yankees have one more issue awaiting them at Fenway, as if smothering Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra and dealing with Pedro Martinez aren't challenging enough. No wonder they're turning to Jose Contreras to administer an age-old baseball lesson -- that corner strikes conquer muscle-bound hitters, even at Fenway. The Cuban right-hander is being asked to erase all the memories of his last start against Boston, a 1.1-inning fiasco on May 20 when he allowed five runs and saw his ERA swell to 15.63.

Back then, Contreras was relying on sinking, two-seam fastballs to fool hitters, a tactic he has since abandoned. After spending nearly three months on the disabled list, Contreras has reloaded his best weapon, the four-seamer, which was clocked in the mid-90s and higher as he was shutting out the Orioles for seven innings on Sunday.

Of course, facing the Red Sox will create greater problems for Contreras, considering they're leading the AL in batting average, slugging percentage and total bases. As Torre told the New York Times, "It's going to be a heck of a test (tonight). That ball club, they're pretty good as far as having good at-bats. They don't get tricked very often. It'll be a good test for (Contreras)."

If Contreras can prevail, it'll lift a burden from Pettitte, who, despite outperforming everyone on the Yankees' staff since the All-Star break, nevertheless has to face Pedro on Saturday. And Contreras could give Clemens breathing room, too.

Not only does the Rocket have to figure out why the White Sox hit him so hard -- he said, "Everything I threw was in the middle (of the strike zone)," -- but he has Fenway baggage, too. The last time he faced Boston's lineup on July 5, Clemens promised to reclaim the inside corner from David Ortiz, vowing to brush him back, if necessary.

"His plate coverage is too good," Clemens said after Ortiz hit a long home run off him. "I'm going to have to make an adjustment on that."

It's been almost two months since Clemens delivered that promise -- or was it a threat? -- but the words still live and breathe. So does the AL East's pennant race, which isn't just breathing. Starting this weekend, it's ready to hyperventilate.

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.