Being swept by the New York Yankees is never a palatable proposition for the Boston Red Sox. But this particular three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium was much more helpful to the Yanks than it was damaging to the Sox.
Over the course of two nights and one day in the Bronx, Boston's lead in the American League East dwindled rapidly to five games. But the Red Sox came into this series with such a comfortable margin that even the sweep cannot be construed as anything resembling a crisis in the standings.
But by losing three straight, the Sox did allow the Yankees to roll right back into the thick of the AL Wild Card race. The Yankees came to this series off a 2-5 road trip, with their pitching in apparent disarray. They emerged, after three consecutive starting pitching performances that ranged from commendable to stunning, feeling as though they were the New York Yankees again.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, after scoring 46 runs in four games against the Chicago White Sox, managed just six runs here. Part of this rapid journey from feast to famine can be explained by the difference in the quality of the opposition. In Chicago, the Red Sox were not facing a proven big-game performer such as Andy Pettitte, or a future Hall of Famer such as Roger Clemens, trying to make a suitable final stand, or Chien-Ming Wang, who may be, day in and day out, the best starter the Yankees have, but who cannot receive enough recognition with all the big names in his immediate vicinity.
And, for the last 21 innings of this series, the Red Sox did not have Manny Ramirez, who was suffering from a strained left oblique. Any statement about how much Manny's absence means, particularly against the Yankees, risks only understatement. It is sufficient to say that, one way or another, the Red Sox never got much going in this series, especially in Thursday's 5-0 loss, when Wang no-hit them for 6 1/3 innings and gave up only one hit over seven.
"We got some walks, but we were never able to extend things," said catcher Jason Varitek. "Credit them, they pitched very well. We can't replace Manny in the lineup. When he's not in there, we have to do a lot of little things."
Those little things weren't done in this series. The return of Ramirez will automatically help, but the Red Sox were not exactly a diversified offensive group in these three games. This could be a sign of trouble ahead, but it is not necessarily an indictment.
After losing three straight to the Yanks, the Red Sox weren't going to be in especially good humor, anyway. But they were given a little more reason to leave Yankee Stadium with an acrimonious edge by flame-throwing rookie reliever Joba Chamberlain.
Chamberlain, pitching in the ninth inning with a five-run lead, threw two straight heat-seeking missiles in the general direction of Kevin Youkilis' head. Chamberlain gets a pass on the first one. Anything can happen. But on the second one, once again with catcher Jorge Posada's target held low and away, the umpiring crew will assume the worst. That's what home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez did, ejecting Chamberlain.
This decision will be denounced in New York, but if you're the umpire and you see these back-to-back pitches, you can't simply write off this episode as a momentary lapse of control or a brief, youthful indiscretion.
Crew chief Derryl Cousins, noting that there was "more than a little bit of history" between these two clubs, said after the game: "Those were two pretty nasty pitches the young man threw. ... We just had to put a lid on it before there was a problem."
The Red Sox, without directly claiming malice on Chamberlain's part, made known their objections.
"If that young man is trying to get our attention, he did a very good job," manager Terry Francona said sternly.
Youkilis did not claim intent on Chamberlain's part. "Who knows what the intent was?" he said. "You're asking the wrong guy. There's only one guy who really knows that answer."
But Youkilis did note that Chamberlain had a current ERA of 0.00, had previously displayed reasonable command of his pitches and was throwing about 98 mph at the time he was forced to take his head out of the way of these pitches.
This rivalry doesn't require any more subplots, but it will have this one, anyway, when the teams next meet in Fenway Park, Sept. 14-16.
As to the more direct matter of winning the AL East, the Red Sox remain in a good, but not unassailable position. When Francona was asked by a New York baseball writer whether there was still a race in the AL East, the manager indicated that the question was not worthy of an answer, and then his actual answer conveyed the necessary message.
"How many games are left?" Francona said. "I don't even think that deserves an answer.
"I think we need to show up and play baseball like we always do, and when the season's over, whatever our record is, that's where we'll be. Whatever the Yankees are, that's where they'll be. I guess you're hoping I'll say something stupid. Maybe I just don't feel like saying something stupid."
The Red Sox should still win this division and break the Yankees' streak of nine straight division titles. They should do this not only because they still have a five-game lead, but because the quality and depth of their pitching, relative to that of the opposition, indicates that they should finish first.
What this series indicated was that the Yankees aren't finished, and that the Red Sox will not win on pitching alone. An opportunity to dismiss the Yankees was missed, but the larger and more meaningful opportunity still is there for the Red Sox to seize over the final 28 games of this season.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.