In their quest to attract attention to the start of its 2010 season, and not, incidentally, help out its television partners' ratings, Major League Baseball scheduled a kick-off series between ancient rivals the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Then, as if to bookend things, MLB also slotted the final meeting of the two teams on the last weekend of the season, in the hope that the clubs would be jockeying for first place and play-off positioning. Again, spectacle and drama are virtually guaranteed when the Red Sox and Yankees meet.
But unexpectedly, a set of games between the two teams in May has taken on unexpected significance. The Red Sox will host the Yankees in a three-game set in Boston beginning Friday. Then, 10 days later, on May 17, the Yankees will host a two-game series in New York. Ordinarily, these might be compelling games - no more, no less. But this season, five games between the rivals will take on added significance and urgency.
The reason? The Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays, who are also in the American League East, are off to baseball's best start, with an 18-7 record. The Yankees are close on the Rays' heels, at 16-8. But the Red Sox, off to their worst start to a season since 1996, are in danger of falling out of contention in the second month of the season. Since only two teams from the division can qualify for the play-offs - the first-place finisher and, potentially, a wild-card entrant - the Red Sox face the very real possibility that they could be the odd team out in the AL East. Falling further behind the Yankees - to say nothing of the streaking Jays - would imperil their post-season hopes.
Two years ago, it was the Yankees who were squeezed out of October when they finished third and missed the play-offs for the first time since 1993. The Rays won the division that season (and went on to win their first American League pennant) while the Red Sox claimed the wild- card spot. Last year, the Yankees won the East (and, eventually, the World Series) while the Red Sox settled again for the wild card. This season, little has gone right for the Red Sox, who have been struck by injuries, inconsistent starting pitching and a complete inability to stop opponents from running unchecked on the basepaths. "We've got to start finding ways to win," Dustin Pedroia, the Boston second baseman, said last weekend, "because the way we're playing isn't getting it done." And fast, he might have added. The next two weeks are less about The Rivalry and more about survival. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org