Yanks Will Need To Earn It This Time Around

It's still July, and the rational baseball mind knows that a three-game series in the middle of the summer doesn't mean much in the big picture of the AL East race. <br><br> In sheer numbers, that is. <br><br> From a mindset standpoint, this past weekend said a great deal about how this pennant race will probably shape up. <br><br>

Above all, the Yankees know now that if they are to repeat as Division champs, it will be because they outplayed the Red Sox. In years past, the words "Red Sox" and "collapse" were as synonymous as "Brooke Burke" and "hot". New York could get away with playing .500 ball the last month or so as their rivals played themselves out of the race.

Not this year though. These Red Sox are talented enough and, maybe more importantly, gritty enough to at least stay close to the Yankees. For the cynics out there, games two and three over the weekend provided a reminder that this year could be different.

Normally, a game like Friday could have sent the Sox into a worse tailspin than the XFl television ratings. Pedro Martinez failed to hold a lead in the seventh, and Yankee fan-favorite Byun Hyun Kim lost the game in the ninth. It had all the makings of a three-game sweep.

That possibility was magnified even greater when the Yankees tied Saturday's game in the eighth inning after falling in a 4-0 hole. But David Ortiz' liner off the Green Monster provided an emotional and unfamiliar clutch win over New York.

And even if you chalked up Saturday to a typical Armando Benitez choke-job, there was Sunday night. For six innings the Red Sox looked lost, and any momentum from the previous day seemed to vanish like a Popsicle in the desert. But then Chris Hammond threw some glorified BP, the Sox pounded out a six-run seventh, and poof – Yanks lose two out of three and GM Brian Cashman gets an invite/death notice to meet with George Steinbrenner in Tampa.

While New York may fine-tune a bit before Thursday's trade deadline, it's not their roster that they should be worried about, because they certainly have the talent of a playoff-caliber team. Throw in the fact that two of their better offensive players – Bernie Williams and Alfonso Soriano – are due to breakout in a big way sooner or later, and the Yanks still have the look of a dangerous club.

No, the Yankees should be wary of the team that resides about four hours north on I-95. This club has the appearance unlike any Red Sox team we've grown to love. Other than a more explosive offense, Boston's talent level is comparable to years past. It's their resolve that should be worrisome. Guys like Jason Varitek, Bill Mueller, and Ortiz are getting the clutch hits that have traditionally been elusive. Despite troubles with inconsistency and injury, they still have two pitchers with the ability to dominate. And even Manny Ramirez has shown a tendency to hustle every third play rather than every fifth.

Come September, when the two clubs face off twice more, you can bet that the race will still be tight. And needing to win meaningful games in September, let's see how the Yankees react.

Only three positional players (Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada) remain from their championship teams, while the rest of the starters are sans ring. But not only that, few of them have tasted the sweet success that the postseason can offer. The days of the true Yankees – guys like Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez – have passed, and the latest crop needs to prove they can win like their predecessors.

Of course, the Red Sox have to prove they can win, period. So they are still the underdog. But this Boston club is primed to challenge the Yankees more so than they have since Bucky Dent's homer in 1978. And if a return to the top for the Yankees is to take place in '03, they'll have to learn how to win when it counts.

We know Jeter and Williams save their best for the pennant chase and the playoffs, but questions still remain about whether the rest of the crew will show up when it matters.

And for the Yankees, it will matter earlier than ever this year.

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