Sox/Yanks Race Points
Walking to the hardware store in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn this afternoon, I had the luck of running into one of my pinstripe-loving neighbors. He wore a sly grin as he approached from the opposite direction with his toddler. Guiding his son’s stroller with his left hand he raised his right hand and gave me a deliberate and flamboyant four-fingered wave. (You gotta love the subtle simplicities of Yankee fans.)
“Four games back!!” he yelped, just in case the rest of Church Avenue couldn’t decipher the hidden meaning behind his gestural greeting.
“Now what I wanna know is this,” he said as he neared. “You go on the Yankees website and it says four games. You go on the Red Sox site and it’s four and a half. What the f— is that? When are they gonna they change it?”
Alas, it appears that balance has been restored: Yankee fans are once again only concerned with the accuracy of the documentation of their winning. As opposed to the first three and a half months of the season when they were so un-Yankee-like it actually creeped me out.
What exactly constituted un-Yankee-like? In public in manifested itself in the form of consistently bewildered/angered expressions. For instance, imagine you ran into your high school bully when you were 22. After a brief moment of disbelief you’d want to pounce on the guy. This is how Yankee fans walked around for the first half of the season; toeing the line between confused and enraged. This foreign and conflicted state of mind that Yankee fans were stuck in was a direct result of the realization that had gripped them all: the fact that A-Rod, the poster boy of Yankee-failure since October of 2004, was himself the single reason the Bombers weren’t totally buried by July 1st. His Herculean effort the first three months of the year kept the Yanks at least fighting for air, and gave Yankee-faithful the slightest justification to keep monitoring the (gasp!) wild card race in dark corners and most discreet fashion.
In 2007, A-Rod has been the enabler. He’s enabled Bobby Abreu to start bashing; enabled Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui to start mashing. He’s enabled Joe Torre to keep managing. Because of A-Rod, the Yankees token-late summer run is not being staged in vain. Accordingly, order has been restored throughout Yankee fandom. Like always it began in the Bronx and trickled down the avenues of Manhattan; crossed over the bridges into the other boroughs before permeating the entire Tri-State area. If I had a nickel for each time I’ve heard some variation of “Yanks are back!!! Watch out Sox!!!” in the last few days, I’d have, well a nice stack of nickels. Each of which I’d probably want to hurl back at the taunting Yankee fan of the moment. But that’s the thing. I’m happy with that; happy to be finally having those kinds of exchanges again.
So, you might be wondering, why the bleep are you not pressing the panic button when the walls are crashing down around Red Sox nation? Well first off, if you’ve been monitoring my baseball writing this year I’ve been trying to brace the Nation for a pennant race, little as anybody desired to hear the words. Well here it is folks. The good news is we’re still “the chased”. The better news is that one player is responsible for the Red Sox losing an unacceptable two games in the standings on a weekend when they were in Baltimore and the Yanks were in Cleveland. He is Eric Gagne (and for illustrative purposes you may pronounce his name phonetically).
Much is made of the “closer mentality” and the need to be in a closing situation in order to perform ably. There is no doubt that Gagne has shown this year that he still has the stuff to be a very good closer. Not on the Red Sox, though. He knows Jonathan Papelbon does the closing for the Boston Red Sox. He knew it when he removed the Sox from his no-trade list. He knew it when Theo Epstein agreed to pay him his closing bonuses to become one of the Red Sox setup men. Granted, transitioning from a closer to a setup role is a process, and evidently requires a change of psyche. To say the least, that process has been rocky for Gagne thus far. He gave up multiple hits and single runs in two of his first three appearances out of the Boston bullpen. That was promptly followed by a total implosion on Friday night in Baltimore, when he entered in the eighth inning with a 5-1 lead and left one out later, having giving up four runs and (basically) the game.
Friday night is on Gagne. He needs to get his ducks in a row, and I’d rather see him suffer through the growing (or diverging) pains of becoming a setup guy sooner than later. Sunday was a totally different story. Sunday afternoon in Baltimore marked the last game (as well as the rubber game) of the Sox nine-game road trip, their toughest of the second half. With a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning Terry Francona opted to use setup man Hideki Okajima as a matchup reliever, and go back to Gagne to face Miguel Tejada, who represented the tying run. Tejada deposited a 3-2 pitch ten rows deep in the left-center field bleachers to tie the game.
Whether this was an act of appeasement to Gagne (a fulfillment of some unstated clause in his contract) or mere micro-managing by Tito, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Red Sox manager. The Red Sox have now blown four games this year when leading after seven innings, and two of them have been courtesy of Francona and Gagne this past weekend. Going forward it needs to be communicated to Gagne that on this team he must earn the right to be a setup man, even if he’s being compensated as a closer. Until then (and possibly beyond) Okajima will precede Papelbon because he’s been doing it all year, with near flawless results. I doubt that Gagne will become a $6 million mistake, but if he does Francona and/or Theo better pull the plug and cut their losses because they already have a very good thing going without the guy.
So here we are in mid-August, in a pennant race. Today the Yankees sit four games behind the Red Sox, with three on tap at the Stadium in two weeks. How the teams fare over their next respective 14 games will say a lot about the gravity of that pending series. The Yankees start a seven game home stand Monday night before embarking on a seven game road trip that will lead them back to the Bronx for the Sox series. After three with Baltimore the Bombers will have eight games with Detroit sandwiched around a trio against the Angels. That’s 11 games versus the two teams that have disposed of the Yankees the last two Octobers. The .742 baseball New York has been playing since the All-Star break is sure to cease. The Red Sox, meanwhile, get a few of the teams the Yanks have been torching of late. That includes Tampa Bay six times and the White Sox four, which should set the stage for all this recent bad news to be safely in the rear view come August 28th.
However, as any Yanks fan will gladly (though uncharacteristically) assert, all objects in the rear view are indeed closer than they appear.