Clinching a playoff spot in the first game of yesterday’s day-night double header, the Yankees followed up with the encore of taking the American League East division title. While a division title is not the ultimate goal – nobody remembers the fact the Yankees won the division in 2004 – it’s certainly a noteworthy moment.
For most of the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox, it’s been the Red Sox who were the underdogs. They changed that this year by signing the most lucrative free agent on the market, and trading for the best player being dangled as trade bait. They assembled a team assumed to win the division title, and from day one were already looking ahead to the World Series finals.
Meanwhile, the Yankees had lost key members of the rotation and lost out in the chase for Cliff Lee. Two of the three pitchers (Hughes and Burnett) expected to be valuable pieces of the team probably won’t even factor into the playoffs.
The Yankees were the underdog, and their GM Brian Cashman even admitted as such.
Early on the Red Sox scuffled out of the gate. It wasn’t so much a question of if, it was a question of when they would start playing. Everybody in baseball figured they were underachieving and would start playing like the team of destiny they had been assembled to be.
But as 3 games turned into 6 games and the Red Sox were sitting in dead last place, we posed the question; at what point do you worry? Their start was debilitating, but it wasn’t deadly. They had more than ample time to stage the comeback. In fact, they were in the thick of the pennant race right up until the start of September.
As injuries will happen, they happened to the Red Sox. Their rotation has been hit hard, losing Daisuke Matsusaka and Clay Buchholz to the 60 day disabled list. Jon Lackey, unfortunately, has managed to stay completely healthy while pitching to a 6.49 ERA. His .500 record is more indicative of the Red Sox offense than anything to do with his abilities.
Mix in ineffectiveness from Bobby Jenks, a pathetic first season by Carl Crawford, lineup inconsistency, and a pitching staff that’s imploded for September, and it’s no surprise the Sox were eliminated from the race.
The early deficit to the Red Sox finally came back to haunt them. Consider that they’re 7.5 games behind the Yankees despite their 11-4 record against them head to head. Take away their April funk, and the pressure would have been on the Yankees to keep pace for September. But April was already in the books, and the healthy lead was instead just a half game. Even with their September implosion, the Sox still could have been in the thick of things for the division.
But they’re not. They didn’t, they couldn’t, they missed it, they underperformed in it, they were hurt for it – many reasons will surface. For the first time in a long time, the Red Sox were the universal favorites to not just win the division, but to represent the American League in the World Series. While there’s still a slim chance for the latter, it will take a complete turnaround for Boston to be any more than 3 and done come October.
2011 meant a division title for the Yankees. Ultimately it will be October prowess that decides the victor, but this is definitely a telling sign. This wasn’t the Red Sox team we thought they would be. It wasn’t even the team they thought themselves to be. This was a team that came up short and coughed up the division to the Yankees with a .250 September.
The countdown has already started. For a team that was projected to compete on the historical scale, anything short of a World Series appearance will be a crushing defeat. It will especially be so after losing the division to a team with Freddy Garcia as their third best starter.
Congratulations to the Yankees on their division title. But the Yankees find themselves in an unfamiliar situation; they aren’t the biggest story of the AL East. For a team with all the hype and expectations, the Red Sox continue to be the team under the microscope. The Pressure is on to see how they finish off the 2011 campaign. Early predictions aren’t favorable.