Omen 2006: The Annual Conflict
(The Omen, 1976)
You cannot just stick a fork in them and think that will do. No, they must be lured to sacred ground, and there be pierced by the seven Daggers of Megiddo. Not haphazardly mind you, but in specific regions of the corpus and in an exact order as prescribed to Gregory Peck's character in bringing an end to Damien.
Killing the Evil Empire was never supposed to be easy, but enough is enough.
After ripping off 14 wins in their last 15 interleague games, the Red Sox took occasion on what figured to be a little rest-and-relaxation break in St. Petersburg to lift their goggles, glance back, and gauge the separation they've created between themselves and the persistent Yankees: Four games, a five-game improvement from the deficit they found themselves in before interleague play began. Nowhere near enough, given that the supply of National Leaguers is exhausted and Orioles dates are running low.
The Yankees were cast from the American League East cockpit on June 18 and it was the Red Sox' thumb that depressed the ejection button. Yet the Bombers still remain tethered to our chassis by the thinnest of whipcords in vintage Indiana Jones fashion and it will again take a summer's labor to sever that lifeline.
After a fortnight of revelry around The Hub, a look to October was tempting despite the painful lesson we learned last year. On Aug. 10, the Red Sox held a season-high 5½-game lead over the Yankees with 49 to play. Fans officially pronounced the American League East closed for the season. It was as if 1978 never happened. Though Boston closed with a respectable 29-20, New York kicked it into another level altogether with a 35-14 run that carried them to their clincher on the final Saturday of the season.
Last year's Yankee comeback was brought about by the confluence of New York sorcery and Boston mediocrity, both of which conspired to grant the Empire its eighth consecutive division title. To avert a repeat, the Sox may do well to employ those seven daggers.
The first should be used to sever Randy Johnson's second half. It's hard to believe the Old Unit is having a more productive season this year. Through Independence Day, he is 9-7, albeit with a 5.25 ERA, compared to 7-6 and a 4.24 ERA one year ago. But last July 5, RJ's season turned around with a 12-3 win over Baltimore that began a 10-2, 3.32 ERA run and gave the Yankees their ace for the second half.
Johnson is but one head of the Yankees' big salary Hydra, and no dagger is sharp enough to cut George's purse strings. With so much capital invested in a 25-man roster, one superstar is always stepping up when another falters. Even with three everyday starters out, six current or former All-Stars still fill the lineup card.
This year, the Yankees are 24-14 with at least two of their three stud $13 million outfielders in the lineup, but 22-21 with only one. However, neither Gary Sheffield nor Hideki Matsui is due back until September, vesting the onus for production in the bats of Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez. To date, the former is delivering consistently, the latter only in blowouts. But if last week's walkoff homer should awaken the sleeping dog within A-Rod, no dagger may do.
Another is needed to cut through the smoke and mirrors, which are particularly thick and illusory in the Bronx. They can make Tony Clark appear an MVP first baseman or Tanyon Sturtze a shutdown middle reliever. Last year's illusions were Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon, one a 34-year old minor leaguer, the other a lifetime 24-45 pitcher. They combined for a 17-3 record that lifted a Yankees rotation reeling from the absences of their big-name acquisitions.
But this year, there is no veteran pop off the bench. Sturtze is out for the season, Small has been designated for assignment, and Chacon has been ineffective. However, with the trade deadline about four weeks away, there is plenty of time for more of GM Brian Cashman's wizardry.
Next, how about cutting off the supply lines from Trenton and Columbus? Turns out the Cashman farm system is not as bad as Baseball America and media pundits have led us to believe. We've heard for three years how the Yankees have no trading inventory or reinforcements in the minors. Yet last year, Robinson Cano came up to hit .297 with 14 homers in 132 games, while pitcher Chien-Ming Wang went 8-5 in 17 starts.
This year, Cano has been joined by Melky Cabrera and Andy Phillips, and the threesome has combined for a .289 average and .335 OBP through Tuesday. Wang is 8-4 and newcomer Scott Proctor makes nightly appearances out of the pen.
Into a second month of injury relief, the gold dust has yet to settle. Cano hit .398 in June before going on the DL, although his power and production (4 HRs, 27 RBIs) are on a fractional pace with 2005. Cabrera has cooled to .227 over his last 31 games, but Phillips is an even .300 over his last 35. Wang has only four quality starts in his last nine outings, but not a day passes without mention of the name Phillip Hughes. Not bad for MLB's 17th-best farm system.
No one owns the Yankees the way the Yankees own others. Among their portfolio is Minnesota, from whom they garnered 23 wins in 27 games and two ALDS victories between 2002 and 2004, and Oakland, who provided 14 wins in 18 tries over 2004 and 2005. A dagger must be dedicated to shredding these deeds.
So far, so good. Minnesota has won five of its last nine against the Bombers, while Oakland capped a 6-3 season with a three-game sweep in Yankee Stadium earlier this month. If hands could only be laid on that Orioles title, the division would be secure.
The next dagger is for killing those pesky Yankee rallies in which everything seems to fall just right. Last year, there was Cleveland, the Mets, back-to-back games against the Angels, and a five-run ninth against Kansas City in late August. They've collected a few this year, 14-13 over Texas in mid-May after trailing by nine runs, and the improbable 5-4 comeback engineered off Mets closer Billy Wagner four days later after striking for four runs in the ninth. But karma may finally be retaliating against them, as in their recent loss of a seven-run lead in Washington. There will have to be less of the former and more of the latter to avert another Yankees divisional title this year.
The last dagger is for their intestinal fortitude. It is the toughest of the evils to kill and can only be approached once all others have been extinguished. In fact, this prerequisite is part of the final killing. For, without the $16 million pitchers and $13 million outfielders, without the parade of over-performing youngsters and journeymen, without subservient American League clubs, it's hard to maintain that drive to take three straight from a Tigers team that had won 15 of its last 17, or back-to-back wins against the Marlins, winners of 10 of their last 11.
In the end, the real dagger may once again be the Red Sox themselves. They were an integral part of last year's 5½-game squander. It's too early to speculate on whether and for how long the Sox will keep this year's East open.
Despite a recent run against National Leaguers, June 11 remains the last date Boston beat an American League team. After its top two starters surrendered six home runs in last-place Tampa, the Sox have now lost six straight to AL teams and are only 34-29 overall. Take Baltimore out of the equation and it's a sobering 26-28.
So, the longing in Red Sox Nation for the companionship of our brethren from the Bronx continues. Bidding them adieu seems akin to saying goodbye to summer itself. The Yankees linger. The Sox enable.
It will be an uphill battle for New York to run another 35-14 table, but with Boston holding all the daggers, the Yankees won't be finished until October. And no incidental slice from the blade will fall this demon. After all, this is baseball, not the movies.
-- Bob Ekstrom, Boston Dirt Dogs contributor and writer at Sports Central