It's just one week in an endless summer, but if you're interested in the battle for street cred -- with an eye toward October -- pay attention to what's happening in the Bronx these next few days. It's where the AL East's best team (Rays) takes on its most feared enemy (Yankees) while the most enigmatic lineup (Red Sox) struggles for relevancy.
This mini round-robin began on Monday night, when the Yankees dealt a devastating blow to the Sox. The 11-9 victory was a blueprint for delirium in the stands, but it was just as much an in-your-face repudiation of the Sox's commitment to run-prevention. Alex Rodriguez and Marcus Thames both homered in the ninth inning off Jonathan Papelbon, wiping out a three-run deficit and driving the Sox into an 8.5-game deficit.
Is it time for Boston to consider flipping the calendar to 2011? GM Theo Epstein would be loathe to admit he's considering turning into a seller at July's trading deadline, but his Sox are just 2-9 against the Yankees and Rays this year. Even more damning, Boston is allowing an AL-worst 5.4 runs a game in a season where pitching and defense were supposed to rule the fiefdom.
The Rays, meanwhile, have a separate issue with the Yankees -- they can't seem to beat them, especially in the Bronx, where they're 6-12 in the last two years. And even though Tampa Bay has been atop the division since Opening Day, the Yankees hover over them like an anvil, having taken two of three from them in April.
The Bombers are ranked first in the AL in runs, and also lead in OPS and on-base percentage. They're third in homers, which says something, considering A-Rod has hit just five in 141 at-bats, and that includes his game-tying blast Monday night.
The Rays have scored almost as many runs (they're tied for third in the AL with 201), but they've allowed just 114, by far the lowest in the league. The Rays' plus-87 run differential is the best in the majors and testimony to how well they do just about everything, including winning away from home.
Here's a collision that'll wrap you tightly in its tentacles: the majors' best road team (Rays, 15-4) against the best home team (Yankees, 14-3)
"We definitely respect Tampa, they create a lot of problems for any team they face," Derek Jeter said recently. "They're fast, they play great defense and they have a lot of confidence. That's one team you know is going to be there all year."
That opinion is shared throughout the major league community, including the Red Sox, who were stunned by the Rays in a four-game sweep in April. Not even John Lackey could stop them: After beating Tampa Bay in seven consecutive starts between 2004-2008, the right-hander was smoked for eight runs in 3.1 innings on April 19.
That was a wake-up call for the Sox, and they're in crisis today, struggling to reach .500. Epstein told the Boston Globe last week, "No one is quitting. We're better than this." But when he asked rhetorically, "Is there urgency?" he answered his own question candidly.
The Sox are hunkered down, under siege against a string of opponents who are all over .500: the Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers, Twins, Phillies and Rays. Three are division leaders. Epstein says it's not too late to save the season, but he knows another loss Tuesday to the Bombers, this time with Josh Beckett on the mound, would leave a deep imprint on his players.
The Rays, meanwhile, need a strong showing in the Bronx, too. They're just 11-22 against the Yankees in the last two years, and even in their pennant-winning season in 2008, lost six of nine in the Bronx.
But one member of the Yankees organization cautioned this year's Rays are better than the '08 edition, so the numbers from the past don't mean much. The Rays remain true to their business plan, emphasizing youth and athleticism, and proved it by releasing 33-year-old Pat Burrell over the weekend.
"The Rays are the example of how the game has changed; they're young and spend their money wisely," said an executive from another team. "If I was the Yankees, I wouldn't be thinking (the Rays) are going to fade."
Cliff Lee, who lost, 2-1, to Tampa Bay on Sunday agreed.
"They have a good lineup," the Mariners' lefthander said. "There's a reason they're winning as many games as they are. They have five pretty good starters and a pretty good lineup. They're a good hitting team, no doubt about it."
Mets teetering toward oblivion
Following their four-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins, the Mets found themselves back in last place and nudged Jerry Manuel ever closer to his firing. Make no mistake, it'll take a complete turnaround for the manager to keep his job, and that means in the next 10 days in this weekend's series against the Yankees, followed by a three-game set with the Phillies.
The urgency is so real, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon joined the team in Atlanta on Monday night, and held a pregame, closed-door meeting with Manuel, GM Omar Minaya and assistant GM John Ricco for more than an hour.
Wilpon says Manuel is safe -- for now, as the Mets ended a five-game losing streak by edging the Braves, 3-2. But if Manuel can't navigate around the Yankees and Phillies, his chances of survival are slim.
So who would replace him? The organization is already booby-trapped with potential replacements, including Bob Melvin and Terry Collins, both of whom have major-league managerial experience.
Others being groomed are former second baseman Tim Teufel, now managing at Double-A and considered one of the system's rising stars, and the locally popular (and equally self-destructive) Wally Backman, who's been giving one last chance to get his career (and life) back on track with the Single-A Brooklyn Cyclones.
Of course, Monday's victory, authored by Mike Pelfrey, could be the start of another sprint toward the top. Anything is possible with a team that boasts a $127 million payroll. But Manuel, no dummy, knows he's already on the clock.