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Wild, Wild East: Part 2, the American League
Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays vie for the Flag

Rick Gagliano | 7/28/05

Having taken a peek at the National League East on Monday, it's now time to peer into the doings over in the AL Eastern division.

As of this writing (Thursday, July 28, 11:30 am), the Boston Red Sox hold a two-game edge in the standings over the New York Yankees. The Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays are lurking just behind, both trailing the Sox in the standings by 4 1/2 games.

What's interesting about this year's AL East is that the 2nd place finisher may not be the Wild Card, as has been the case the past few years. Since the Orioles and Blue Jays have gotten their acts together, the records of the Yanks and Red Sox have fallen back to earth. If the season were to end today, the Yankees would not be the wild card team in the American League; that honor would fall to Minnesota or Oakland, though it's still a close call.

With that in mind, the struggle to win the division will likely fall to the team best able to capitalize on its strengths. All four teams in contention will be all out to win the division outright, and it should be an exciting pennant chase right down to the final days of the season.

Here's a quick overview of what each team has going for them and what will get them to first place at the wire.

Boston Red Sox: The Sox, last year's World Series champion, have just about all the elements needed to get the job done again, though not quite, and that's what's making the AL East so interesting. Sure, Pedro Martinez is gone, and Curt Schilling has been out most of the season, but boys from Beantown are still a force to be reckoned with. While it's easy to think that the Red Sox have an advantage playing in fabled Fenway Park - and they do - they are the only team in the AL East to show a winning road record. At 29-27, that's a very positive factor heading into August and September.

Of course, the Red Sox have the offense with which to beat just about any other team. Johnny Damon, leading off, is having a better year than last season. His batting average is a full 30 points higher, and while the homers are off a bit, his 28 doubles are 2nd in the league behind Miguel Tejada's 33. While he is leading the league in batting at .337, his 80 runs scored is also tops. With Damon hot, the Sox score runs.

As one goes down the lineup, there really isn't a break until the 7th or 8th spot. After Damon, shortstop Edgar Renteria is always dangerous, then comes David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Kevin Millar and usually Trott Nixon or Bill Mueller. After Ramirez, the long ball is not as much of a concern as a barrage of singles and doubles from the bottom of the order. The lowest batting average among the starters belongs to Renteria at .273, which isn't very low at all.

As for the power guys, Ramirez and Ortiz rank #3 and #6 in the AL in homers and they are 1 and 2 in RBI, with 92 and 87 respectively. The Sox have plenty of sock, so to speak.

As for pitching, there's much to be desired, especially in the starting ranks. With Pedro gone to the Mets, a lot of weight was put on Schilling to be the stopper, but he's spent most of the season on the DL and is now working out of the bullpen, while the regular closer, Keith Foulke tends to a damaged left knee. The Sox are hoping to have Foulke back and healthy by late August.

It's just as well that Foulke stay on the sidelines until fully repaired. He was less than his usual lights-out self this season, having blown four saves in 19 tries and racking up a 6.23 ERA in 39 innings of work. In the meantime, the plan is to just score as many runs as possible, get five or six innings out of the starters and give the long relief guys plenty of work. It seems to be working. The Sox have scored 10 or more runs 11 times this season, and they lead the league in runs scored, RBI and doubles, while the pitching staff has compiled a 4.82 ERA, with only Tampa Bay and Kansas City worse than that.

What they need to win: Two words: keep hitting. The starting rotation of Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo, Matt Clement, David Wells and Wade Miller isn't exactly going to inspire fear into many opponents. But when you're scoring nearly 5 1/2 runs per game, you know your pitchers only have to do so much. Getting Schilling back into the starting rotation isn't as much of a priority as getting Foulke back into closing form. No team can survive in the playoffs without quality pitching in the late innings.

New York Yankees: After a very shaky start, the Yanks have pulled themselves into contention and are looking to close down the Red Sox in the stretch. They face the Sox in two key series in September: at home on the 9th, 10th and 11th, and at Fenway the 30th, October 1 and 2. While the Yankees might not want to admit it, they don't want to have those final three games in Boston matter. They'd rather have it all wrapped up by then because Yankee-Red Sox series can be brutal, especially in Beantown.

To get to the finish of the regular season on top, the Yankees will have to keep playing solid fundamental baseball and they've been very good over the past 45 days, posting a 23-14 mark since July 13. It hasn't been easy, and most of the pressure has been on the two veteran starters who have remained healthy, Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson. During their most recent streak, Johnson has accounted for 6 wins, Mussina 4. Besides them, no other starter besides Chien-Ming Wang, with 3, earned more than one win. With Wang on the DL and no timetable yet set for his return, the Yankees signed Hideo Nomo to a minor league deal after picking up Al Leiter from Florida last week.

The Yankees are still shopping for pitchers because of their ravaged rotation, which still has Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright on the DL. While Pavano and Wright are both due back soon, Brown may be lost for the season with recurring back problems. Look for the Bombers to be aggressively shopping for a solid starter right up until Sunday's trade deadline.

Offensively, the Yankees are still a potent force. With the recent resurgence of Jason Giambi, the middle of the lineup is packed with home run threats in Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, Giambi and of course, Alex Rodriguez, who leads the team with 28 dingers. Derek Jeter has become the leadoff hitter by default, and his numbers are solid, as usual. Jeter is batting right around .300, with 12 homers, 10 steals and 76 runs scored to go with 39 RBI. Manager Joe Torre would probably prefer to have his all-star shortstop batting second, but he's got nobody else to fill the leadoff role adequately.

What they need to win: Quality starts will be the key to the Yankees' performance. Any time a starter can get through 6 innings, the Yankees have a reasonably good chance of winning. That's mostly because of the dominance of arguably the best closer in the game, Mariano Rivera (25 saves and an ERA of 0.83). Middle relievers Tom Gordon, Tanyon Sturtze and Felix Rodriguez are highly capable of getting a game to the ninth, when Rivera normally slams the door shut.

Another key to possible Yankee success and/or failure is the schedule, especially the last week of August and the first week of September when the Bombers will be playing the Royals, Mariners, A's and Devil Rays while the Red Sox take on the Tigers, Devil Rays, Orioles and Angels in the same time span. The Yanks also have a crucial set of seven games in ten days against the Orioles between September 19 and 29. The O's have proven to be a very worthwhile opponent this season, having already beaten the Yankees seven times in eleven outings.

Baltimore Orioles: The O's have one of the most productive lineups in the majors, starting with 2nd baseman Brian Roberts, who began the season red hot and has tailed off a bit, though he's still batting .333. From the leadoff spot, Roberts has been the catalyst for a Baltimore team that has already surpassed anybody's expectations, knocking in 51 runs on 15 homers while also swiping 19 bases.

While Roberts has cooled, Miguel Tejada has heated up. Tejada leads the team in hits (126) homers (21), RBI (66) and is tied with Roberts with 60 runs scored. Having either Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmiero hitting behind him and Melvin Mora (.296, 14 HR, 49 RBI) hitting in front of him, has allowed Tejada to see better pitches all season and he's been making the most of it. With contributions from players like catcher Javy Lopez and outfielders B. J. Surhoff, Luis Matos, Larry Bigbe and Jay Gibbons the O's have the look of a serious contender.

Pitching has been less than spectacular, but starters Sidney Ponson, Rodrigo Lopez, Bruce Chen and Daniel Cabrera have been pretty consistent, garnering 28 wins between them. Fifth starter, Erik Bedard, has been even better, going 5-2 in 11 starts, compiling a 2.11 ERA along the way. Bedard spent some time on the DL, but looks good to be a factor down the stretch.

If the starters can get through six or seven, Jorge Julio or Todd Williams usually take to the mound. After that, it's up to B. J. Ryan, who has emerged as one of the more reliable closers in the AL this season, finishing the deal 22 times in 25 times, though two of his blown saves have been to the Yankees and Red Sox. Ryan has a nice K-BB ratio, having struck out 67 batters while walking only 16 in 46 innings of work.

What they need to win: Much like the Yankees and Red Sox, the Orioles depend on a high octane offense to win games, but they're going to need to do more than just hammer opponents into submission. Rodrigo Lopez and Erik Bedard have to step up and win important games, as does Sidney Ponson. The bullpen also needs to be solid and give Ryan a chance to come into games with nobody on base. They also need Melvin Mora and Miguel Tejada to step firmly into leadership roles as it's become obvious that Sammy Sosa can't get it done this season.

The O's may have the best personnel in the division. August and September is the time for them to prove it. They have six games left with Boston, seven with the Yankees and nine against Toronto. Their pitching will have to be top-shelf to get through to the finish.

Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays have the best record against division opponents at 23-16, but amongst the contenders have a winning record against only the Red Sox (8-3). Having split 10 games with the Orioles and having gone 2-3 against the Yankees, their work is cut out for them in the final two months of the season.

With nine games against the O's and a whopping 13 left with NY, the Blue Jays will rely primarily on what's gotten them this far - solid starting pitching. Roy Halladay (12-4) is back in Cy Young-winning form and rookie Gustavo Chacin (10-5) has proven his mettle thus far. Josh Towers, Ted Lilly and Dave Bush have to step up their performances for the Jays to stay in the race.

While the Blue Jays have the lowest staff ERA in the division (4.19) offensively, they rank behind the Red Sox, Yankees and Orioles in almost every key category, but noticeably in the home run department. Vernon Wells leads the team with 20, but after that, there's a drop-off to Shea Hillenbrand with 13 and Eric Hinske with 10, the only players on the roster with double-digits in HR. Corey Koskie, just back from the DL, was supposed to provide some pop, but he's only hit 7 dingers in 40 games.

Unlike their opponents in the AL East, the Jays win more with pitching and defense than just offensive power. They get by with contributions from players like Alex Rios, Reed Johnson, Frank Catalanotto and Gregg Zaun. The Jays rely more on singles from these guys than homers from Wells, their only bona fide power hitter.

Consequently, they'll have to win close games down the stretch - something they've yet to prove they can do, having compiled a horrible 6-14 record in 1-run games. The blame can be laid squarely on the middle relievers, especially Jason Frasor (1-4) and Chad Gaudin (1-3), and closer Miguel Bautista (in July alone, Bautista has 1 win, 3 saves, 3 losses and 2 blown saves).

What they need to win: Reliable relief. The Jays' starting pitching is good enough to keep them in most games, but the middle relievers and closers have to step up if they're going to have any chance at all in this power-laden division. With those 13 games against the Yankees, they'll need more than one stopper coming out of the pen.

On Monday, July 25, I covered the NL East contenders: View article here.