PHILADELPHIA — People who make predictions, like me, thought the Yankees and Red Sox would be fighting it out for fourth place right about now.
We evidently underestimated the resolve of the Yankees and we underestimated how well a group of complementary players could blend with the Red Sox.
Those are reasons the upcoming series in the Bronx is meaningful. Unlike the season-opening set at Yankee Stadium, when the Sox took two of three against a team learning to adjust to injuries, this series will be an old-fashioned Yankee-Red Sox rivalry with first place on the line.
What was expected to be a Yankee collapse has turned into one of baseball’s best stories as New York has 13 comeback wins. And the Sox, winners of 69 games a year ago, have turned into a playoff contender.
The Yankees have turned back the clock on players such as Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, and Travis Hafner while Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, and Mark Teixeira have been on the disabled list.
Andy Pettitte may be 40, but he’s still good and he returns from the DL on Monday. Mariano Rivera saved 18 straight games before laying an egg against the Mets Tuesday.
Now the Yankees are going through another transition, from what general manager Brian Cashman calls the “B” team to the “A” team, as Kevin Youkilis and Teixeira are expected to return from the DL Friday.
Cashman never had any illusions that the “B” team could sustain this level of play all season.
“It’ll be great to get our players back,” he said.
There are more reinforcements to come. A-Rod is working out in Tampa and preparing for a return post All-Star break. Jeter is starting to play catch and will likely be available later this season. Granderson will miss at least a month after having surgery for a fractured pinkie.
The pundits were right that the Yankees would start showing their age this year, but New York has overcome its setbacks thanks to veteran help and consistent pitching.
Although the Yankees have dropped five straight games, falling two games behind the Sox in the division, they will be reckoned with all season.
“You get a greater appreciation of how consistent they’ve been with their pitching,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “You can look up and say that’s been a strength of theirs clearly and you see the way some of their new guys have responded to their environment, whether it’s Lyle Overbay or Vernon Wells and productive major leaguers like Travis Hafner, and they get into that atmosphere and produce. Three guys key to their offense. Looking forward to the challenge.”
Sometimes teams need until mid-June to figure out who they are. Farrell feels he has a good handle on his squad.
“I think we have a good idea of what we have,” Farrell said. “We also feel guys who are currently here have yet to hit their stride. That would be a boost, a plus offensively. I think we have a deep team. I don’t think our club is built around the home run like some teams, or around a running style. I think we have professional hitters up and down the lineup that can grind out at-bats.
“But it still points back to consistency in our rotation. I think a lot of people can point to that group. It’s a pivotal group for us.”
When a team surprises, there’s always a surprise player.
For the Sox it’s Daniel Nava.
“A different player than the one he used to be,” Farrell said. “For one, he’s a much better defender. Over time, he’s gained confidence that he belongs here and he’s a very good major league hitter. He’s become a better righthanded hitter than he has in the past. To his credit, he’s a much better major league player than he was.”
Farrell said he doesn’t think twice about using the switch-hitting Nava in any situation.
“We know he’s going to put up quality at-bats when he gets to the plate,” Farrell said.
Asked if he ever imagined Nava becoming such an important part of the lineup, Farrell said, “Don’t want to slight him, but no. Largely in part he’s come on so much defensively. The three-run homer he hit righthanded, you started to think maybe we don’t need to look at him as just a one-sided guy.”
The Yankees have had a few surprises as well. The resurgence of Wells has been huge. He was pretty much abandoned by the Angels. A $20 million-a-year bench player. After being acquired by the Yankees, he started to play every day and his skills resurfaced, though lately he’s slumped.
Overbay was released by the Sox in spring training and quickly signed with the Yankees. He will likely go back to being a platoon player with Teixeira back, but he’s had some clutch hits during the first two months of the season, including three go-ahead home runs in the seventh inning or later.
Hafner has flashed some of his old power, a trademark from his heyday with the Indians.
The Sox face a challenging month ahead, starting with series against the Yankees, Rangers, Angels, Rays, and Orioles.
The difficult stretch begins Friday in New York.
It was expected to be a battle at the bottom. Instead, it’s a battle for first.