"If you get caught between the moon and New York City,
The best that you can do, the best that you can do, is finish second."
With apologies to Christopher Cross, the Boston Red Sox once again look as if they will finish behind their arch rivals in the American League East. If the division race plays out as expected, the New York Yankees will win their ninth AL East title in a row while the Sox will end up as the bridesmaid for a like number of consecutive years.
There are worse things in baseball than placing second every season. For confirmation, just ask the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The cellar dwellers have been in the league for the same number of years as the Yanks and Sox have captured first and second, respectively. In these nine years (including 2006), the Devil Rays have finished last every time, save for 2004 when they. . .gasp, ended up in fourth, three games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Two-thousand-and-four is significant for one other minor reason. Boston just happened to win the World Series that year in a post-season for the ages. The Red Sox swept the then Anaheim Angels in the ALDS, then beat the Yanks four straight after falling behind three games to none in the ALCS. It's almost easy to forget for those of us who don't live, breathe, sleep, and eat the Sox that Boston had been outscored 32-16 in those three losses. The inhabitants of Fenway Park looked like they were dead in the water at that point. Nonetheless, the Red Sox came back and won four in a row, including back-to-back, extra-inning victories in games four and five. Then, in an almost anti-climatic World Series, the Sox got the brooms out and swept the St. Louis Cardinals, outscoring their counterparts 24-12 in the process.
Last year wasn't so bad either. . .well, at least with respect to the regular season. The Red Sox and Yankees finished with identical 95-67 records, leaving them in a tie for first. Or so some would like to think. But the reality of the matter is that New York was credited with the AL East title by virtue of winning their season series with the Red Sox ten to nine. Boston beat out the Cleveland Indians for the wild card by two games.
First, second. . .it doesn't really matter a whole lot as long as you qualify for the post-season. In fact, the World Series champ from 2002-2004 was none other the wild card. The Angels, Marlins, and, yes, the Red Sox all emerged victorious by sneaking into the playoffs and getting hot at the right time. It just so happened that there was an even hotter club last year. The Chicago White Sox led the American League with 99 victories, including five straight to end the campaign. The Pale Hose then swept the defending World Champs in the ALDS, beat the Angels four out of five in the ALCS, and completed their dream season by sweeping the Houston Astros in the Fall Classic.
Despite a disappointing post-season in 2005, the Red Sox were still the popular choice to win their division and even the league this year. At the All-Star break, Boston was three games in front of New York. A month later, the Red Sox were two games behind the Yankees. Fast forward to today and the team that has a bad case of "seconditis" finds itself eight games back of the Bronx Bombers. Moreover, Boston is six games behind in the wild card standings and looking as if it will be on the outside looking in come October for the first time since 2002.
EAST W L PCT GB HOME ROAD RS RA
NY Yankees 82 55 .599 - 43-25 39-30 776 646
Boston 75 64 .540 8.5 43-26 32-38 717 705
Toronto 72 67 .518 11.5 42-28 30-39 697 669
Baltimore 61 77 .442 21.5 36-34 25-43 661 759
Tampa Bay 55 84 .396 28.5 36-34 19-50 592 729
Interestingly, Boston's win-loss record is actually better than what one would expect, given its run differential. Having scored 717 runs and allowed 705, the team's Pythagorean record works out to approximately 71-68. The Yankees, by comparison, are playing right about in line with expectations based on runs scored and prevented.
Look, the Red Sox have nothing to be ashamed of - they just picked the wrong division. New York has won at least 87 games every year since 1996 and 95 or more in eight of the last nine. Boston, on the other hand, has garnered a minimum of 92 victories in six of the past eight seasons. The Red Sox have been good. Very good. The Yankees just have been great during this same period.
It hasn't always been this way though. Hard to believe but the Sox had a better record than the Yanks in 17 of the previous 30 seasons (1966-1995). The Bostonians also thoroughly dominated the New Yorkers from 1903-1918, topping them in 13 of those 16 campaigns while capturing five world championships. The real problem is what took place between those two stretches. Get this, from 1919-1965 - a span of 47 years - the Red Sox had the superior win total TWICE. Yep, Boston won more games in 1946 and 1948 and that was it. The Sox won the AL title in 1946 but lost to the Cardinals in the World Series in seven games.
The Red Sox have certainly closed the gap over the years but are finding it difficult to overcome their competitors to the south. If not for the World Series championship two years ago, I believe the disappointment in failing to win the division more often would be an even bigger deal.
This winter will likely be one of reflection from principal owner John Henry to president Larry Lucchino to general manager Theo Epstein to manager Terry Francona all the way down to the players. Sure, the team has suffered a number of injuries this season. But there have been a number of mistakes, too, including judgments in personnel and flawed in-game strategy. Who will be back and who won't will be part of the intrigue, yet the real question comes down to whether the Red Sox have what it takes to dethrone the Yankees - be it money, smarts, or players. Only time will tell.