Each baseball season contains many turning points. It seems as if the Yankees have already had dozens. Think of the man whose boat has been sunk and he's clinging to a piece of wreckage in the middle of the ocean. Every time he slips off into the water, he manages to scramble back aboard his raft without drowning. The Yankees are the man in the water, the sunken boat their miserable start to the season, the raft their postseason hopes. This time they have slipped off the raft to find a shark named Boston in the water, hoping to pull them down before they can pull themselves back out.
Going into Wednesday night's game, the Red Sox and the Yankees have been slowly churning backward. Over their last 10 games, half of them played on the road, where they struggle, the Red Sox have averaged 4.2 runs scored a game while allowing 4.1. When a team's offense and defense are in equilibrium, you have a recipe for a .500 record and the outsize influence of luck. That's why the Sox have gone 4-6 with five one-run games in that span.
As the first-place Rays have held off the Red Sox in their head-to-head battle this week, the Yankees have slipped to eight games out of first place. Given that the Yankees now have to pin their October dreams on a collapse by the wild-card-leading Red Sox (not to mention the Twins and the A's), Boston's current problems offer little in the way of good news. This is not a team that is in a dire slump, but one that's slightly out of sync. Had Boston's pitching collapsed, the Yankees would have more reason for encouragement, but the staff stayed strong throughout June, the only problem children in the starting rotation being the somewhat inconsistent rookie Justin Masterson, the scrap heap pickup Bartolo Colon, and the rehabilitating Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Boston's bullpen has been more problematic, with setup man Hideki Okajima pitching poorly of late. Still, this is not a team in any danger of collapse. If the offense has been a bit cool in road games, the team's well-known hitting assets are a reason for long-term confidence, especially with Dustin Pedroia and Mike Lowell heating up, Kevin Youkilis and Manny Ramirez having a consistently strong seasons, and J.D. Drew covering for David Ortiz's extended absence with a Ruthian (or Ortiz-ian) June, batting .337 AVG/.462 OBP/.848 SLG with 12 home runs on the month. The attack's only problem child has been Jacoby Ellsbury, who, having walked just three times in June against 20 strikeouts, has either completely forgotten the approach that made him a prospect or has been figured out by pitchers and has been incapable of adjusting.
In the current four-game series at Yankee Stadium, Andy Pettitte, Darrell Rasner, Mike Mussina, and Joba Chamberlain will face, respectively Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Masterson, and Tim Wakefield. Given Boston's road problems, only one of the contests, Rasner-Beckett, seems like a likely mismatch in favor of the Red Sox. The Lester game also poses problems. As last Sunday's game against Oliver Perez and the Mets illustrated, the Yankees still have no answer when it comes to left-handed pitching. They are somehow 14-13 against southpaw starters despite hitting just .263/.345/.404 against them as a team. What's most interesting about this is how counterproductive Joe Girardi's attempts at platooning have been. Left-handed Yankees like Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, and Bobby Abreu have hit lefties exceedingly well. Even Robinson Cano, who hasn't hit anyone until recently, is batting .281 against them.
Conversely, right-handed Yankees are hitting only .235/.317/.362 against lefties. This doesn't make much sense according to the way the laws of the universe generally operate in baseball, and mostly reflects just how poor the team's right-handed reserves ó Jose Molina, Morgan Ensberg, Shelley Duncan ó have been, while center fielder Melky Cabrera, batting .196/.286/.293 from the right-hand side, is a switch-hitter in name only.
Rasner, 1-5 with a 6.47 ERA in his last half-dozen starts, and left-handed opponent Lester make for two handicaps in four games, enough to neuter the Yankees' home field advantage and make a split the series' most likely possibility. To return to our original analogy, the drowning man doesn't benefit from tying with the shark. He gets back to his raft without drowning, but he's lost a leg and a couple of fingers and is now in danger of bleeding to death, and the shark is still waiting for the next time they take a dip. The Yankees need to deliver a knockout blow now, or their chances of paddling long enough to reach shore will become infinitesimally small.
Mr. Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for yesnetwork.com and is the author of "Forging Genius," a biography of Casey Stengel.