When J. A. Happ made his debut for the Yankees on Sunday, the veteran left-handed pitcher provided his new team just what it had hoped for when it acquired him from the Toronto Blue Jays. Happ allowed one run (on a harmless solo homer) in six innings, the type of steady, workmanlike effort that has been a rarity from the Yankees’ starters in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, at Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox were unveiling their own rotation-bolstering addition. Nathan Eovaldi, a right-hander obtained from the Tampa Bay Rays, was even better than Happ, delivering seven shutout innings in an economical 82 pitches.
That little Sunday-afternoon snapshot serves as an embodiment of the season for the longtime rivals: Whatever the Yankees have done this season, the Red Sox have done it just a little bit better.
The Yankees have played exceedingly well, rolling along at a 105-win clip and owning a better record than every team in baseball — except the Red Sox.
“Typically, this record would put you in a spot where you’d be ahead of everybody else,” General Manager Brian Cashman said of his Yankees team after the trade deadline came and went on Tuesday afternoon. “It just hasn’t worked out that way yet.”
So as August dawns, each Yankees win, loss, injury and roster decision is increasingly viewed through a Red Sox-tinted prism. Thus, the outsized importance of the four-game series between the league leaders that begins Thursday night at Fenway Park, with the Red Sox now leading the Yankees by five and one-half games in the American League East.
The Yankees arrive here limping, having lost again, on Wednesday, to the woeful Baltimore Orioles. Two of their sluggers, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, are on the disabled list, and their ace, Luis Severino, who is scheduled to start on Friday night, has been out of sorts over the last month.
The Red Sox are not at full strength, either, having placed their own ace, Chris Sale, on the disabled list (shoulder inflammation), along with third baseman Rafael Devers. Still, the Red Sox portrayed the move with Sale, who has allowed just one run in his last 39 innings, as precautionary, the type of decision a team with a sizable cushion in the standings can afford to make.
What is beginning to grate on the Yankees is that while they have played their best against the American League division leaders — Houston, Cleveland and the Red Sox — they have struggled against the Orioles. Baltimore has the worst record in baseball but the team has won six of the 12 games they have played against the Yankees.
What is also bothersome is that since the Yankees routed the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on July 1 to move into a first-place tie, the Yankees have won 14 of 25. Which is pretty decent. But during the same stretch, the Red Sox have won 19 of 24. Which is a lot better.
“You wonder what their record would be if they weren’t playing us,” said Cashman, whose team has won five of nine games against the Red Sox this season. “Because when we go head-to-head we do some damage against them and it doesn’t seem like anybody else is capable the way they’re rolling. They’re doing a great job.”
That would extend to the Red Sox front office, where the president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski, made three roster additions in July, all of which seem well-suited to fill a particular need on the team. Steve Pearce, a first baseman and designated hitter, has brought right-handed thump to the Boston lineup to offset some modest struggles against left-handed pitching. Eovaldi, who relies on high fastballs — something that teams try to beat the Yankees with — helps balance out a lefty-heavy Red Sox rotation. And Ian Kinsler, acquired Monday night, provides Boston a steady presence at second base given the increasing likelihood that Dustin Pedroia is out for the season.
The Red Sox may still want to fortify their bullpen, and there figures to be some relief help on the market via waiver deals. If not, starters Eduardo Rodriguez (currently on the disabled list) or Drew Pomeranz could be slotted into the bullpen.
The major fix for the Yankees is not so simple.
Their rotation has been in need of bolstering since last October, but Cashman passed up a chance to acquire Gerrit Cole from Pittsburgh over the winter, figuring there would be ample arms available this summer. As it turned out, the market was not as attractive as he anticipated.
Cashman did his best to improve the starting five by acquiring Happ and Lance Lynn, and further strengthening the bullpen with Zach Britton. But it is hard to see how these are difference-makers the way that Justin Verlander was for Houston after the Astros acquired him in a waiver deal last August.
And neither Lynn nor Happ may be of much help in the Boston series. Happ’s status for Saturday’s scheduled start against Eovaldi is in doubt after he contracted hand, foot and mouth disease, and Lynn, after being used for four relief innings after Sonny Gray was shelled in Wednesday’s game, may not be available, either.
If the Yankees can’t put a real dent in the Red Sox lead this weekend, they may not get another chance to do so until the second half of September, when the teams have a three-game series at Yankee Stadium followed by another series back at Fenway to close out the regular season.
Whichever of these two teams ends up winning the A.L. East will have a considerably more favorable path to the World Series. If the Yankees do not catch the Red Sox, they would have to survive a wild-card playoff game — most likely against Oakland or Seattle — and then travel to Boston (if the Red Sox, presumably, maintain the best record in the American League) to begin a best-of-five division series.
It would be a series in which Sale might be poised to pitch Games 1 and 5 and Severino might already have been used in the wild-card game. So, if the resolve of the Yankees is tested severely this weekend in Fenway, it is nothing like what could await them here in October.