The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has a newfound sense of urgency. A feeling that every move counts and will count, be it at the trade deadline in a month and a half, or when Alex Cora determines his second baseman on a nightly basis.
It's not because these franchises hate each other, because of their steep history. It's because they actually have to best the other, or suffer an unwelcome consequence.
Unlike the early 2000s, both teams cannot enter the playoffs on equal footing. A second-place finish in the American League East will sting. Participating in the Wild Card game for the right to move on to the five-game Division Series will be a stomach-turning experience for one of these two teams.
The upshot presently: even as the Sox and Yanks play teams that are uninspiring, and there are plenty such clubs, there is reason for fans and players alike to stay intently focused. (In the midst of a 162-game season, there will be lapses for everyone.) There is reason to care, in fact, if the ideal lineup or pinch-hit decision is made by Alex Cora, at every juncture. There is reason to care about whether Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has sufficiently helped rebuild the farm system, because it’s a matter of depth options now and via trade.
The Sox can have the best record in the majors in June, or be one win off the pace-setters, and the smallest of details will still matter. “They’re great,” doesn’t cut it. “Is this move optimal to beat the Yankees, the team that can relegate the Sox to a one-game playoff scenario?” is the question to be answered
As trade season arrives, the concept of the marginal win is out the window for both clubs. Or it should be. In divisions where one team is clearly superior, the need to add by trade isn’t always so clear. What’s the difference between 93 wins and 95 wins if you’re heading to the Division Series either way? Is the slight upgrade worth whatever you’re giving up?
The playoffs are always a crapshoot. But the Sox and Yanks are playing to avoid the biggest crapshoot of all in the Wild Card.
Passion between fan bases in the regular season wasn’t lacking 15 years ago. It was greater, obviously. But for different reasons. Second place in the division was usually a matter of bragging rights, rather than actual reward or worthiness.
We’ve returned to a world where the Sox and Yanks are clearly better than virtually everyone. Were the rest of the AL stronger this year, the Wild Card could be a blessing for the Sox or the Yanks — a chance to make a postseason run that did not previously exist when there were four playoff teams instead of five.
But the present landscape shows three powerhouses, and two of them happen to be classic rivals in the East. What they do before October means more now than it used to.