Once more with feeling

Once more with feeling

BOSTON -- The more things change, the more they remain the Yankees and the Red Sox. Or, at the moment, the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Here we are in another mid-September, and these two will be at it once again, with something very substantial on the line. Earlier in the season, when the Red Sox's lead over the Yankees in the American League East looked like Franklin Delano Roosevelt over Alf Landon, people were saying that by the time this final regular-season installment of the rivalry rolled around, the issue would be completely settled.

No chance. Boston's lead in the AL East remains substantial, but it no longer seems quite as insurmountable as it once did when the last meeting of these two clubs began on Aug. 28. The Red Sox led the Yanks by eight games then. Three days later, the lead was five games.

That sweep did not doom the Red Sox to another Yankees-induced swoon, but it did point the New Yorkers in precisely the right direction. Since the beginning of that series, the Yankees have made the AL East argument at least the semblance of a race. More than that, they've taken over the AL Wild Card lead. The Yankees' October future, not that long ago a flimsy concept, now looks to be no worse than probable.

There is much to be said for the importance of the event if Boston hangs on and wins the AL East, thus breaking a nine-year New York stranglehold on top of the division. But it turns out to be not quite the same thing as eliminating the Yankees from the postseason.

This may not be the last meeting of the calendar year between these two clubs. And everyone who recalls the epic AL Championship Series of 2003 and '04 fully understands what that means. The 2004 ALCS changed the face of the game itself, making this rivalry into something other than a one-way street.

But for now, this is more than enough -- three games at Fenway Park on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Sunday night. The Red Sox have Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling lined up to start. The Yankees will have Andy Pettitte, Chien-Ming Wang and Roger Clemens or, if the cortisone shots don't work, Phil Hughes.

The Yankees have picked up the pace considerably in recent days. They stumbled again after the Red Sox series and fell back to seven games behind, but they've finally had a semblance of consistent pitching from their starters. Even Mike Mussina, dropped from the rotation earlier, returned to form and to victory on Wednesday night in Toronto.

Yankees Coverage
Jeter's late homer lifts Yanks
Yanks gear up for lesser opponents
Chamberlain springs curve on Sox
Notes: Peace of mind for Posada

Red Sox Coverage
Schilling's gem ends with loss
Bauman: Game mirrors Classic duel
Sox don't take lead for granted
Notes: Matsuzaka pushed back
Season Series
Yankees win 10-8
• 9/16: Yankees 4, Red Sox 3
• 9/15: Red Sox 10,Yankees 1
• 9/14: Yankees 8, Red Sox 7
Previous season series
2006: Yankees 11, Red Sox 8
2005: Yankees 10, Red Sox 9
2004: Red Sox 11, Yankees 8

And there was nothing ever seriously wrong with the Bronx Bombers' offense. The work of Alex Rodriguez has been something like MVP-plus. This was the A-Rod for which the Yankees had been waiting, hoping and, at least in part, paying. The argument could easily be made that no single player is worth $252 million, but you can see how this one could come the closest.

The Red Sox have been without mainstay Manny Ramirez, who has been suffering from a strained oblique muscle. And Matsuzaka has been more mortal than legend recently, being knocked around in his past three starts, including a loss to the Yankees. Tim Wakefield, so good for so long, has also been battered in his last two starts.

Still, these Red Sox will come to this renewal of the rivalry with baseball's best record and the AL's best team ERA. By this point in the season, the element of chance has disappeared from those sorts of numbers. This is not a Boston team whose offense batters the opposition. But over time, it has had something even more reliable, pitching in both quality and quantity.

Whether or not Ramirez is available, David Ortiz will be. And there have been stellar contributions from, for instance, Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury. And as far as giving this team a boost, the no-hitter from Clay Buchholz is in a category by itself. When a 23-year-old pitches a September no-hitter, shortly after a sweep by your biggest rivals, it offers evidence that suggests that not only is all not lost, but this just might be your year.

Two weeks have passed since the last series ended, and the distance between the clubs has only changed by a half-game. That's good news for the Red Sox.

But they won't have the luxury of absorbing another sweep, not for their well-being in the AL East standings, and not for their overall welfare as a team with legitimate October aspirations.

The Yankees have made the push you always suspected they would make, but the Red Sox have not evaporated. This rivalry, baseball's own discovery of perpetual motion, is fully on again, one more time when it matters.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.