For most of this season, the general consensus has been that the three best teams in Major League Baseball reside in the American League East. (Apologies to the Dodgers and Phillies.) For a good chunk of the year, many observers have pegged the Yankees third, the Red Sox first, and the Rays, despite a slow start, a potential second.
After the Yankees’ homestand that ended yesterday, no one’s saying that anymore.
Thanks to timely hitting, adequate starting pitching, and a suddenly unstoppable bullpen, the Yankees blasted through the Tigers, Orioles, and A’s to a 9–1 homestand out of the All-Star break. They’re now in first place, two-and-a-half games ahead of the Red Sox and six-and-a-half ahead of the Rays. In fact, the Yankees, who were five games out of first just a month ago, are two games behind the Dodgers for the best record in all of baseball. These are heady times. (The homestand, by the way, was also a heart-warmer: The team’s Hope Week — a new initiative which featured the players meeting with various charities and underprivileged children at the stadium each day — was an unqualified success.)
It’s difficult to overemphasize how well the Yankees’ bullpen, once considered the team’s Achilles heel, performed. Of the nine wins, only one was by more than two runs. Check out these lines: Phil Hughes: 7 1/3 IP, 0 ER, 12 K, 1 SV; Mariano Rivera: 5 2/3 IP, 0 ER, 4K, 6 SV.
Those kinds of numbers will win you a ton of ballgames. Everything is clicking into place — now is the time to put the rest of the division, and the rest of baseball, away. The Yankees begin a nine-game road trip tonight, starting in Tampa Bay. A sweep of the Rays would essentially knock them out of the division race. (They would be nine-and-a-half back with only 60 games left to go.) The Red Sox, meanwhile, are 3–6 since the All-Star break and looking wobbly; imagined mid-season-rotation stud John Smoltz has been dreadful and the offense looks weaker than it has since the pre–Manny Ramirez days.
When this road trip ends, the Yankees will face the Red Sox in a four-game set at the Stadium that will surely have an October feel. The Yankees can take baseball by the throat in the next two weeks. And right now, it looks like they will.