Sox proving they are East's best

Sox showing they are East's best

PHILADELPHIA -- The Evil Empire has been inhaling strong fumes from Red Sox Nation exhausts for a week now. That's how long it's been since Boston knocked the Yankees out of first place in American League East during an impressive three-game sweep.

In fact, the Red Sox have taken all eight games from the "Empire" this season. That's a bad omen for the Yankees, who paid heavily during the offseason with the sole purpose of returning to the top perch in the division their goal.

Anything short of playing postseason baseball in the luxurious new $1.5 billion House That George Built will make 2009 an utter failure.

But when you're in the heavy traffic of the American League East and not on the front end, the air gets a little heavy following the leader.

And that's especially difficult for the Yankees. There are no better rivalries than these two teams who -- well, hate each other.

There's so much animosity, i.e. competitiveness, between the teams that Red Sox president Larry Lucchino gave the Yankees the Evil Empire tag during a frustrating moment years ago. After watching the Red Sox take two of three from the Phillies last weekend, it's easy to see why the Yankees haven't been able to beat Boston.

This is a better Red Sox team than the one which lost the ALCS in 2008 to Tampa Bay, paving the way for the Rays' unexpected, first World Series appearance.

An 11-6 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday at the expense of ace Josh Beckett tarnished an otherwise superb 12-game run when the Red Sox played four teams which were either tied for or leading their division. They won nine of the 12 games, with sweeps over the Tigers and Yanks.

"The schedule doesn't get any better," sighs Boston manager Terry Francona. "You go from one good team to another. It's not been perfect for us, but we have a lot of guys who like to play. When we have tough times, which we do, I feel for the most part we go in one direction. It's a fun team to be the manager of."

Cleanup hitter Jason Bay -- with the Red Sox since July 31, 2008, when he arrived from Pittsburgh as part of the three-team deal which sent disgruntled outfielder Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers -- has made a huge difference.

He leads the Major Leagues in RBIs with 61 and is among the leaders in six other categories.

"Bay has made a big impact," says Francona, 50, who achieved his 500th victory as Red Sox skipper during the sweep of Detroit. "Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkillis are growing into leadership roles. Mike Lowell is always there and Jason Varitek -- they're the stabilizers."

The expertise of general manager Theo Epstein shows through this team just as it did in 2004 and '07 when the Red Sox were World Series champions. He's developed a core of home-grown players and added premier veterans, such as Bay, wisely.

"It's a pretty good mix," says Francona. "The younger players -- Jacoby Ellsbury is coming and some of the pitching. It's a pretty good mix -- enough veterans and enough youth. When you mix it together, I think it works. The young guys respect the veterans and the veterans accept the young guys. They've done a very good job."

Francona adds he was optimistic about the bullpen, anchored by closer Jonathan Papelbon, before the season.

"We thought it was going to be good and didn't want to overwork it," he says. "Those guys have been terrific. They've given us a chance just about every night to win. I don't know if all teams can say that. You get to the sixth inning down two or three runs and some nights those games get away from you."

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has seen both the Yankees and Red Sox up close. Philadelphia won two of three at Yankee Stadium and salvaged Sunday's victory in the three games against Boston.

"Boston has more depth in their starting pitching and bullpen," says Manuel. "When you look at their whole pitching staff, they've got a lot of talent, a lot of hard throwers. It's a very good team, they have some speed and play the game right.

"The talent the Yankees have with their starting rotation with CC Sabathia and A. J. Burnett when it's all said and done, they're going to win their games. I really believe Tampa Bay will get back in the race and Toronto can play well at times. It's really a good division."

Pick a winner?

"All I can say, it's going to be a close race," Manuel offers, walking away with a smile on his face.

Francona has come a long way since he managed the Phillies (1997-2000).

His success coupled with Red Sox Nation mania has taken the pleasures of dining out, walking through a mall or other activities away from baseball.

"The Red Sox Nation thing is so good, but along with the good there has to be something [negative] that comes with it," Francona says. "You can't have all that good attention and there not be a drawback. I think I understand it, but that doesn't mean I always like it. But I understand it.

"I go nowhere. That's one of the trade-offs. There's never a night out, but saying all that, I wouldn't want to trade it. There's excitement each day, with every game. There's something to be said for that."

And the Yankees?

"It's hard. We beat on each other," he says, a painful expression on his face. "I don't think people [other teams] realize until they play these teams how good our division is. It's tough."

And even more difficult when you're not leading the pack.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.