With only one team likely to advance to the postseason from the AL East,
will the Red Sox or Yankees be the one standing when October arrives?
Red Sox vs. Yankees
By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com
If ever the Red Sox were positioned to end the Yankees' reign of eight consecutive AL East titles, this is the season.
Offensively, the Red Sox are as good as ever, as evidenced by the monster first halves enjoyed by Manny Ramirez and, in particular, David Ortiz.
But the real advantage lies elsewhere. For the first time since the epic rivalry was renewed in the late 1990s, the Red Sox have clear edges where it counts: pitching and defense.
How will the Red Sox finally unseat the Yanks as perennial champs of the East? Let us count the ways.
1. Endgame solution
Finally, the Red Sox have a closer who can impact the late innings the way the great Mariano Rivera has for the Yankees over the past decade.
Rookie Jonathan Papelbon is the Red Sox's difference maker. Fearsome on the mound, but fearless too, Papelbon shortens the game for the Sox.
In the first half, he successfully converted all but two save opportunities. He's allowed a total of six extra-base hits and until the final game of the first half had not allowed a run on the road.
What's more, in the last few weeks, the Red Sox have seen the emergence of Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen, two power arms who have become trustworthy setup men, helping the ageless Mike Timlin get to Papelbon in the ninth.
Hansen pitched five times on the recent 10-game road trip and allowed two hits and just two runs over 7 2/3 innings while striking out nine. Delcarmen has been similarly impressive.
2. Good health
Although the Red Sox have had their share of pitching injuries, losing David Wells (knee), Matt Clement (shoulder) and Keith Foulke (elbow) to the disabled list, their position players have been remarkably healthy.
Only Wily Mo Pena (wrist) has missed significant time, and he's due back shortly after the break, providing the lineup with one more powerful bat.
By contrast, the Yankees are without outfielders Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield for perhaps the rest of the season, and for the moment second baseman Robinson Cano.
Even a lineup as muscular as the Yanks' can't be unaffected by the loss of two run producers such as Matsui and Sheffield.
The Yanks have gotten good output from such replacements as Melky Cabrera, Bubba Crosby and Andy Phillips, but the longer they play, the more they get exposed as role players.
3. Glove work
The Red Sox remade their entire infield from last year and, in the process, improved their defense at each position.
Mike Lowell won a Gold Glove in the NL in 2005, and while this year's AL selection will likely be Eric Chavez again, Lowell's play has been superb.
Even better has been shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who made two errors in the first half.
Mark Loretta has been steady at second and adept at turning the double play while Kevin Youkilis, making the transition from across the diamond, has been a standout at first.
Alex Cora is a slick-fielding reserve, capable of playing third, short and second.
The improved infield has helped the pitching, though the top three starters (Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield) are primarily fly ball pitchers.
4. Home cooking
No team played more road games in the first half, which of course means that no team will be home more than the Sox in the second half.
Of the club's 76 remaining games, 44 are home, with just 32 away from Fenway Park. Boston has just five road trips remaining and none is longer than two series.
Why does this matter? Energized by the atmosphere at Fenway, the Red Sox are a better team at home, feeding off the fans' energy. They have a .311 home batting average, 57 points higher than their opponents, and the Sox seem to routinely score six, seven or more runs per game at home.
Moreover, Josh Beckett, who may be the key to the starting rotation the rest of the way, has a home ERA almost two runs lower than on the road.
5. Trade winds
In a season in which there's little available and what's available is grossly overpriced, the Red Sox don't have any glaring needs.
Sure, they could use a No. 5 starter since they're unsure of what they're going to get out of Clement or Wells -- if anything -- over the final 10 weeks of the season.
But they have other options, from Kyle Snyder to Jason Johnson, to fill the final spot in the rotation.
In the meantime, rookie lefty Jon Lester has been superb, winning his first four decisions. The Sox have won five of his six starts to date.
Last July, other clubs were after Delcarmen, Lester and Papelbon for a temporary pitching solution. The Sox wisely held on to all three, and together with Hansen, the four rookies make up one-third of the pitching staff this season.
When the Red Sox rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the 2004 ALCS, it forever changed the dynamics between the two clubs. Finally, the Sox had some positive experience from which to draw when it came to The Rivalry.
Gone is the Yankees mystique, or the feeling of dread that filled the Red Sox for decades when the Yanks were the opponents.
Last year, though both teams finished with identical records (95-67), the Yanks claimed the AL East crown by virtue of a better head-to-head record.
This time, there'll be no tiebreaker necessary. The reign is about to stop.
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.
By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com
Trailing the Red Sox by three games at the halfway mark, the Yankees admit this isn't quite the free ride to the playoffs they'd envisioned in spring training.
Everyone's hurt, it seems. Randy Johnson looks alternately untouchable and geriatric. Alex Rodriguez has thought/stressed/panicked his way to a .174 average in situations considered close and late.
Meanwhile, the White Sox and Tigers will apparently hog the wild-card spot.
That means the Yankees will likely have to catch the Red Sox to avoid being shut out of the postseason for the first time since 1993.
Can they? GM Brian Cashman says the worst is over for the Bombers.
"For all the things that have gone against us," he said, "we're still right there."
Here are five reasons Cashman is right, and why, after a grueling fight, the Yankees will be the ones who'll make it to the promised land in October.
1. Starting pitching
Despite Johnson's descent to the No. 3 spot in the rotation, the Sox have yet to capitalize on the superior talents of Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett.
Not only have the Sox's top pitchers been matched by Mike Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang, they've actually been outperformed.
Mussina, the undisputed Yankees ace, has a lower ERA and lower opponents' batting average than Schilling. And Wang's ERA is three-quarters of a run below Beckett's.
Mussina and Wang have been better in head-to-head to competition against the Sox, as well. Together, they've beaten the Red Sox in three out of four decisions with a 5.28 ERA. Schilling and Beckett are 3-2 with a 5.93 ERA against the Yankees -- and it's worth noting the Bombers are batting .351 against Beckett.
What does this mean after the All-Star break? The Yankees no longer have any hang-ups about facing Beckett, which is no small psychological burden to overcome, considering he shut them out in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series.
And while Schilling is obviously capable of beating the Yankees at any time, the Bombers now feel Mussina is just as likely to match him on even his best days.
2. Randy Johnson
Not even the Big Unit pretends his old stuff is coming back; at 42, the left-hander has made his peace with a diminished fastball and inconsistent slider. That may have been the key to a surge in the last month, when he allowed three runs or less in four of his last five starts.
While the double-digit strikeout performances are history, the Unit is once again controlling the inside corner with at least a respectable slider. The Unit's apparent rebirth is critical to the Yankees' chances, especially if they're unable to make a deal for another pitcher before the end of the month.
Already, Shawn Chacon, last year's secret weapon, has run out of magic. That'll put extra pressure on Johnson to stay hot. But it was significant that the left-hander rebounded from a dreadful appearance against the Mets on national television -- he allowed eight runs in six innings -- by limiting the Indians to just three earned runs in 7 2/3 innings in his very next appearance.
3. Alex Rodriguez
He's been folded, spindled and mutilated beyond recognition, and sometimes, rightfully so. But the law of averages says A-Rod can't possibly be this awful (8-for-46 with one home run) in close and late situations for the rest of the year.
Doesn't someone who's otherwise batting .309 with runners in scoring position have to eventually display grace under pressure? Logically, yes. The probability is good. Even if A-Rod becomes only a moderate threat when it counts -- say, a .250 average -- he could account for an additional 3-4 Yankees wins in the second half.
It's possible Rodriguez was rescued from his own demons with that grand slam against the Mets on July 2. Granted, it wasn't late (only the third inning) but A-Rod made sure it was dramatic -- enough to draw the ire of Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca.
Words were exchanged at home plate after Rodriguez finished circling the bases (and according to Lo Duca, hamming it up for his Yankees teammates). A-Rod, however, was unapologetic after the game.
"I couldn't hear what [Lo Duca] was saying, but I have a pretty good idea," Rodriguez said. "But you know what, it's been a rough 45 days, so I was going to enjoy [the grand slam]."
Despite losing to the Devil Rays on Sunday, the Yankees went into the break as one of the hottest teams in baseball, winning five of their last six series to post a 12-6 mark entering the break.
Every day they keep the Sox from running away brings the Bombers closer to the end of the injury nightmare, which has so far cost them Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Robinson Cano and, most recently, Johnny Damon.
Damon and Cano will be back by next week, if not sooner. Matsui could return in mid- to late August. And Sheffield is promising his fractured wrist will be healed by early September.
Of course, it's still possible the race could be over by then, but the Yankees now believe that if Boston was going to bury them, it would've happened by now. As Cashman said, "We want the Red Sox to think, 'We've been this hot and we couldn't put [the Yankees] away.'"
All the Yankees are hoping for is to still be close in September when they finally have all their firepower. If they are, the confidence from having survived the summer-long crisis could be the deciding factor in the East.
5. Joe Torre
When the season is in its 11th hour, the intangibles count for everything. Torre gives his players that impenetrable sense of calm and well-being, one that was instrumental in the Yankees' winning 10 of their last 14 games in 2005, allowing them to catch the Sox in the final weekend.
Torre's methods aren't perfect -- the Yankees haven't won a world championship in five years -- but after eight straight division titles, the prevailing feeling in Torre's clubhouse is all about dominating the Sox: In a close race, the Yankees still have the upper hand.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.