The Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry Is (Briefly) Restored as the Two Battle for AL East Supremacy

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Friday August 11th, 2017

They're baaaack. This weekend, the Red Sox pay a visit to the Bronx to renew pleasantries with the Yankees. For as familiar and fatiguing as this rivalry can feel—even within the Northeast Corridor—this is the first time since September 24–25, 2011 that the two teams have squared off in the second half while running first and second (in either order) atop the AL East.

This is the fourth series of the season between the arch-rivals, and while the Yankees (60–53) hold a 6–3 advantage in games over the Red Sox (65–49) thus far, they've tumbled 7 1/2 games relative to the Sox since taking two out of three from them at Yankee Stadium June 6–8, going from three games ahead in the AL East to 4 1/2 back.

Even if first place isn't immediately at stake this weekend, it's been a while since so much was on the line between these two teams. From 1998 through 2009, the Yankees won the AL East 10 times, including nine in a row from '98 through '06. The Red Sox were runners up 10 times in that span (including eight in a row from 1998–2005) and claimed the AL wild card seven times; only in 2007 did they flip the regular season script, winning the division while the Yankees took the wild card. Each finished third once in that span, Boston in 2006 and the Yankees in '08.

The Yankees' dominance carried over to the postseason as they won championships every year from 1998–2000 plus pennants in '01 and '03. They knocked off the Red Sox in 1999 and '03, the latter in a thrilling seven-game ALCS capped by Aaron Boone's walkoff home run off Tim Wakefield, but the next year the Red Sox turned the tables, mounting an unprecedented comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit in the ALCS and winning their first World Series in 86 years. They won again in 2007, while the Yankees did so in 2009.

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Since then, both teams have had only intermittent success and they haven't finished first and second in either configuration. The Red Sox have ridden a rollercoaster, making the playoffs only in 2013 (winning the World Series for the third time in a decade) and 2016 (losing in the Division Series) and finishing last in the division and well below .500 three times. While the Yankees haven't finished below .500 since 1992, and made the playoffs every year from 2010–12, they didn't get further than the ALCS in any of those years, and since then have played in just one postseason game, losing the 2015 AL wild card to the Astros.

As for this season, the Yankees were second in the AL East, the Red Sox in third when the two teams played at Fenway Park on April 26–27, with the Bronx Bombers winning both and climbing into a first place tie with the Orioles. Still leading the division, with the Red Sox in second, the Yankees took two out of three at Yankee Stadium from June 6–8. By the time the two teams opened the second half with a four-game series in Boston, the Sox were atop the division and the Yankees in third; they split those four games, including a Sunday doubleheader that made up a rainout from their April series.

Though the two teams have generally played well since that last series, with the Red Sox going 13–8 and the Yankees 13–10, the anxiety levels appear to have increased for the two teams. The Yankees were the more active of the pair at this year's trade deadline. They added third baseman Todd Frazier and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle from the White Sox, upgrading at third base and a powerful but fatigued bullpen. They brought over righty Sonny Gray from the A’s and Jaime Garcia from the Twins to patch up a rotation that had lost Michael Pineda for the season.

They won seven out of eight from July 25–31, but have gone just 3–6 in August, scoring three runs or fewer in seven of those games and putting up zeroes in both of Gray's starts. Rookie Aaron Judge, who emerged as a superstar in the first half and then won the Home Run Derby, has skidded to a .172/.336/.356 line since then, and both Jacoby Ellsbury and rookie Clint Frazier have struggled as well. The latter is now on the disabled list with an oblique strain, joining the previously productive Matt Holliday, who crashed and burned to a .136/.165/.198 clip to start the second half before going on the disabled list with a back strain.

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If there's good news for the Yankees, it's that Aaron Hicks, who hit .290/.398/.515 before going on the DL with an oblique strain in late June, returned to the lineup on Thursday night, and that both displaced third baseman Chase Headley and newly-acquired Garrett Cooper (obtained from Milwaukee for reliever Tyler Webb) have shored up an unproductive situation at first base, with the former hitting .333/.384/.489 in 99 PA in the second half, the latter .378/.385/.568 in 39 PA.

The Red Sox's moves before the deadline weren't as splashy as those of the Yankees. They didn't dig nearly as deep into their farm system, but they did improve their team by adding utilityman (and former Yankee) Eduardo Nunez, who has hit a torrid .420/.442/.780 in 52 PA, mostly while filling in for the injured Dustin Pedroia (since returned from a bout of left knee inflammation), and reliever Addison Reed, who has added depth to a bullpen hit hard by injuries.

While the arrival of 20-year-old top prospect Rafael Devers has shored up third base (he's hitting .319/.396/.553 in 53 PA), Boston's offense is still unimposing; just four regulars are posting an OPS+ above 100, led by Mookie Betts (109). It remains bizarre that the Sox stood pat with the underwhelming Mitch Moreland at first base instead of adding Yonder Alonso or Lucas Duda, neither of whom would have cost much in trade. Duda wound up with the Rays, who remain in the wild card hunt but have sputtered to a 12–14 record in the second half, while Alonso is now in Seattle.

The bigger concern for Boston is the loss of David Price for the second time this year due to elbow inflammation in late July. He's made just 11 starts and pitched to a 3.82 ERA/3.98 FIP overall while going to war with the local media and team broadcaster Dennis Eckersley, and it's not yet clear whether he'll even pitch again this year. Newly acquired Chris Sale is the leading candidate to win the AL Cy Young, but last year's winner, Rick Porcello, has regressed to a 4.63 ERA/4.39 FIP. Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez have picked up the slack such that the rotation's 4.03 ERA and 3.85 FIP both rank second in the league, but if the playoffs were to start today, it would look less than imposing.

That said, they would appear to have a slight edge in the pitching matchups in this series, with Rodriguez (4.08 ERA/4.15 FIP) going up against Garcia (4.49 ERA/4.03 FIP) on Friday night, Pomeranz (3.36 ERA /3.68 FIP) against newly-minted staff ace Luis Severino (2.91 ERA/2.09 FIP) on Saturday and Sale (2.57 ERA/1.97 FIP) against rookie Jordan Montgomery (4.05 ERA/3.95 FIP) on Sunday night.

With those dozen years of sparring still not entirely erased from memory thanks to so many larger-than-life characters and memorable battles, the rest of the country may roll their eyes and scream “East Coast bias!” given the extent to which this matchup consumes oxygen. Still, the two teams’ collective history means plenty of hype no matter where they are in the standings. At least this time, there’s so much more at stake besides bragging rights.

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