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07/24/08 10:00 AM ET
'Empire' and 'Nation' set to meet again
Long-time rivals face off in AL East showdown
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
Everyone out there who doubted, deep down, that it would come to this, raise your voice. Hear that? Deathly silence. Late July. Fenway Park. The Yankees and the Red Sox, front and center and in the thick and heat of another American League East race. Gee, who woulda thunk it? Tampa Bay has hardly burned its dance card. Rather, the situation is as it was the last time the Bombers and the BoSox convened -- they are both still chasing the Rays, though Tampa's lead in the division is down to .001 of a percentage point over Boston and three games over New York. However, on July 3, the Red Sox and Yankees were 3 1/2 and 7 1/2 games behind, respectively. Now they're breathing down the Rays' necks, and the brightest spotlight is back on the traditional dance partners. Both are bringing in reinforcements for the showdown. Most significantly, David Ortiz is expected back in Boston's clean-up spot, after spending a week rehabbing a left wrist injury that has sidelined him since May 31. "It will be nice to get him back," said J.D. Drew, the Boston right fielder. "It's like making a huge trade at the deadline. It's David Ortiz; You're not going to take that for granted. His impact will be immediate." For the Yankees, Johnny Damon may resurface in left field. In the just-concluded series against Minnesota, Damon DH-ed in all three games, going 3-for-11, after being on the DL for the first time in his career with a bruised left shoulder. They keep this latest appointment, meeting on nearly even ground and coming from dramatically different directions, of course. The Red Sox, with their Fenway domination neutralizing their road woes, have been at or near the top of the East Division all season. The Yankees, conversely, have had to overcome last place with a sub-.500 record as recently as June 6, a nine-game deficit as recently as July 6, an unstable rotation (11 different starters) and serious injuries (Hideki Matsui still out, Jorge Posada out again). Despite the understandable focus on their pitching situation, the Yankees' revival has been because of their offense. Since an eight-game stretch in which they were held to six hits or fewer six times, they've erupted for 116 in 13 games. So here they are again, staring at each other in the eyes. The man with the steeliest gaze, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, said, "We're starting to get to the point of the season where it's kind of do-or-die and I'm sure the fans realize that too. "The race is going to start. It should be fun. It's always fun playing at home. Hopefully it will be just like a little charge of electricity for us." All of the Bombers are walking far more erect than they were a mere couple of weeks ago, when they greeted the Red Sox to New York in the dumps. "The guys feel good about themselves," affirmed manager Joe Girardi. "I like the way our club is playing and we've been hitting outstanding and pitching great. We just need to keep the momentum going." However, none of them is more entitled to puff out his chest than is the Boy Boss, Hank Steinbrenner. The club's co-chairman may not have come up on his own with the idea of Joba Chamberlain's midseason transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation. However, Steinbrenner first raised the subject and remained the most vocal about it. Review: When Chamberlain finished with the last of his 20 relief appearances, on May 28, the Yankees were in last place. View: As Chamberlain makes his 10th start in Friday night's series opener, the Yankees are within striking distance of first place, casting a giant shadow over the division's other hopefuls. And while the Yankees were 6-3 in Chamberlain's starts, how has their bullpen suffered without him? The answer is they haven't missed the flame-throwing righty: New York relievers enter this series boasting a collective 1.65 ERA for the last month; Kyle Farnsworth, the replacement Mr. Eighth Inning, hasn't allowed a hit since June 22, covering 10 appearances. The record in Chamberlain's first nine starts is part of the Yankees' 30-18 rebirth since he was born-again as a starter, including a 5-4 victory over Boston in the finale of the four-game set in the Bronx earlier this month. Chamberlain's 95-mph heat matched up with Tim Wakefield's 64-mph flutters in that one, but the teams' respective rotations have since fallen out of sync. Friday at 7:05 p.m. ET, heat won't take sides, as Josh Beckett opposes Chamberlain. Wakefield steps up against Andy Pettitte in Saturday's game at 3:55 p.m. ET on FOX. And in Sunday night's ESPN feature at 8:05 p.m. ET, the right-hander who defines the Yankees' improbable rise as well as anyone, Sidney Ponson, duels Boston left-hander Jon Lester. This could be a duel of the first-order between the second basemen, both on fire. The Yankees' Robinson Cano, a notorious second-half hitter, has gone off right on schedule, ripping out of the All-Star break with six consecutive multi-hit games. Cano's .518 average over that stretch (14-for-27) is pretty good, but Boston's Dustin Pedroia gets the long-haul prize. In his last 26 games, since June 22, Pedroia is scalding at a .415 rate (51-for-123) that has jacked his average from .274 to .321. "I just try to have good at-bats," said Pedroia, boiling his heat down to basics. "You have to have a lot of luck and a lot of things go right. I'm concerned with helping us get back into first place and winning the American League East. That's our first goal." The Yankees and Red Sox will lace it up and mark off three more laps in their race, so familiar, yet, so different. Because this time, there is a third competitor on the track, perhaps for keeps. Pedroia, for one, doesn't expect the Rays to leave. "It's going to come down to the end -- us, the Yankees and the Rays," he said. "We'll have our hands full." In the short-term, advantage Rays. As was the case earlier this month, when Tampa Bay doubly benefited from the series split in the Bronx by simultaneously taking three-of-four from the Royals, the Rays will be in Kansas City while the Yankees and Red Sox are in each other's faces.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.