EVEN-STEVEN: In the broadest sense of the term, it's true. The Red Sox and Rays are tied for first place in the A.L. East.
In the technical sense, it's not. The Rays (88-60) have one fewer loss than the Sox (89-61), so they're actually ahead by two percentage points (.595 to .593).
In reality, though . . .
"[Does] it feel like a lead to anyone else?" asks the St. Petersburg Times' Gary Shelton after the Red Sox blasted six home runs and pounded the Rays, 13-5, last night, erasing the last remnants of a Tampa Bay divisional edge that had peaked at 5 1/2 games on Sept. 1. Even the computers, which don't feel anything, are in agreement: Baseball Prospectus' Postseason Odds, which is "a Monte Carlo simulation of the rest of the season one million times," now lists the the Sox with a better chance to win the division and a better chance to make the playoffs than the Rays.
Sean McAdam tells us all about last night, a game that was over minutes after it started. David Ortiz' three-run homer off long-time nemesis Scott Kazmir (top), followed moments later by a Mike Lowell solo blast, had the Sox in front 4-0 before Tampa Bay ever came to bat, and helped Daisuke Matsuzaka -- even though his performance didn't impress our Jim Donaldson -- to his 17th victory. McAdam reports that makes Dice-K the first Japanese pitcher in history to win 17 games in the North American major leagues.
The Red Sox got right to the edge of first place last week in Fenway, too, but the Rays rallied with a pair of thrilling victories in the final two games of the series. (Imagine where they'd be if they hadn't; as it is, Tampa Bay is 3-8 in its last 11 tries.) Let's see if Boston can seal the deal this time around.
THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING: There's something sadly pathetic about Rays fans trying to grab the moral high ground on Red Sox fans on the subject of loyalty. Outs Per Swing did just such a thing last week in "calling out" Red Sox fans for leaving Fenway after Carlos Pena's home run (in the 14th inning, after midnight, on a weeknight, on a school night, after it gave Tampa Bay a three-run lead); last night, one of the commenters repeated that sentiment during a running game blog on Rays Index. ("I bet a larger percentage of fans are still present here in TB" -- in the late innings of a blowout -- "than were left in Boston.")
Folks. Please. Get a grip.
"The pennant race came to Tropicana Field last night," writes Sean McAdam. "But apparently someone forgot to tell the Tampa Bay Rays' fans." What fans? This team's attendance totals continue to be utterly pathetic, as was evidenced last night: September, first-place showdown, everything on the line . . . and only 29,772, which is about 6,000 below capacity, show up. The Red Sox -- who, need we remind you, just set the MLB record for consecutive sellouts and haven't played to an empty seat at home in 5 1/2 years -- haven't had a crowd that small since, what, 2001? Not only that, but many of the ones on hand last night were rooting for Boston, like the ones cheering Jason Varitek's home run at right. ("It was a little bit more pro-Red Sox than I anticipated, a few more red shirts than I'd like to have seen," Joe Maddon sold the St. Petersburg Times.) It was enough to make the Boston Herald's Steve Buckley suggest the Rays' postseason games "be moved to a place where fans actually care about the product."
I say all this in sorrow, not indignation; I truly wish the good people of central Florida were as enthralled with their baseball team as the rest of the country is. (Even the Red Sox themselves admit they'd be rooting for the Rays if they weren't battling them for first place.) Mike Lowell's been through this, with the equally unsupported Florida Marlins, and says, as a player, there are times you "actually [look] forward to going out on the road" because the lack of support at home is so depressing. It's sad, because if the Rays can't sell these games out, what games can they sell out?
Which is why it's hard to take the fans' lecturing seriously.
STARTING OVER: The Sox send Josh Beckett to the mound tonight to try and take over first place. It's fitting, says Buckley, because, with Beckett, team comes first. Beckett is also part of a broader look at the Sox' starting pitching by Joe Haggerty on his Hacks With Haggs blog.
PLAYING HURT: The Boston Globe reports Lowell has a partially torn labrum in his right hip that will require offseason surgery.
FEELING BETTER: J.D. Drew will rejoin the Sox today and Terry Francona tells McAdam there's been "marked improvement" on his bad back.
EVERYTHING IS BEAUTIFUL: Jonathan Papelbon reiterated yesterday what he said after his shaky outing against Toronto on Sunday: He feels fine and he's not worried about his recent struggles. (Boston Globe)
QUICKLY: More tidbits from McAdam: The Sox still plan to discuss possible postseason bullpen work with Bartolo Colon, though it doesn't sound like he's interested . . . Francona was "shocked" when umpire Jerry Meals issued warnings after Kazmir hit Jason Varitek with a pitch in the second inning . . . Jason Bay's home run hit the 'C-ring' catwalk at The Trop . . . Mike Timlin passed Kent Tekulve for most career relief appearances by a right-hander.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS DECLARING A WINNER . . . in the American League wild-card race. The Red Sox are now the only team listed.
UNTOLD STORY: The Lincoln, Neb., Journal Star has a fascinating, if somewhat disconcerting, piece on Joba Chamberlain's mother.
ENOUGH, ALREADY: Jorge Posada says the bullpen is the place for Chamberlain. (New York Daily News) Chamberlain a) disagrees and b) is really tired of this never-ending debate. (LoHud Yankees Blog)
AND SPEAKING OF NEVER-ENDING DEBATES . . . Posada and Pedro Martinez, who became enemies during the Red Sox-Yankee tong wars in the early part of the decade -- at left, Posada circles the bases after a John Olerud home run off Martinez, in the foreground, in the 2004 ALCS (Journal photo by Bob Breidenbach) -- are at it again. Posada blasted Martinez once more for his actions in the 2003 ALCS, saying the current Met and ex-Red Sox pitcher has "no class." (AP via projo.com) Martinez, of course, shot back. (New York Post) And so it goes.
If only the Mets had signed Posada last winter. Can you imagine a battery of those two?
IT'S A FREE COUNTRY: Unlike Chamberlain, Joe Girardi says he has no problem with Posada expressing his starter-or-reliever? opinion. (New York Post)
MILESTONE TIME: The season's been reduced to chasing individual goals for the Yankees. Last night Mariano Rivera reached his but Derek Jeter didn't in a 4-2 win over the White Sox. (New York Post)
PETE AND RE-PETE? Joe Posnanski does a fascinating Derek Jeter-vs.-Pete Rose comparison.
MR. BIG STUFF: The Post's Larry Brooks isn't impressed with Girardi's continuing tough stance with Robinson Cano (New York Post), asking why it took so long "to respond to the casual and often careless approach his team displayed intermittently throughout his first year on the job."
WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS: That's how it must feel for the Yanks these days, especially after SI.com's Jon Heyman hears "scuttlebutt" that CC Sabathia doesn't want to play for them.
PAYING THE PRICE: Foxsports.com's Ken Rosenthal is cringing at how hard Mets manager Jerry Manuel is working his starting pitchers -- Johan Santana in particular -- as they head down the stretch. The reason, of course, is that he has zero faith in his Wagner-less bullpen.
N.L. RACES: The Mets' lead in the East is down to one-half game after they lost to the Nationals, 7-2. (New York Daily News) . . . The Cubs' lead in the Central is up to eight games as they beat the Astros again in Milwaukee, 6-1. (Chicago Sun-Times) Ted Lilly came within three innings of giving the Cubbies back-to-back no-hitters before finally surrendering a single in the seventh . . . No movement at the top of the wild-card standings as both Milwaukee and Philadelphia were idle -- on the field, that is; more in a moment -- but the Astros dropped to 2 1/2 behind . . . Status quo in the West: It's still the Dodgers by 4 1/2 after victories last night by Los Angeles over Pittsburgh (Los Angeles Times) and Arizona over San Francisco. (Arizona Republic)
DESPARATE TIMES CALL FOR . . . the manager to be canned in the middle of a pennant race. That's how the Brewers reacted to their recent slide out of contention in the Central and into a tie for the wild-card lead with the Phillies, firing Ned Yost (right) on yesterday's off-day. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) ShysterBall's Craig Calcaterra can't recall a team ever firing its manager at this stage of a season -- not even Billy Martin, he says -- and Baseball Musings' David Pinto doesn't know what good it will do. ("It seems to me that if the whole team stops hitting, there's not much a manager can do. Add to that 3/5 of the rotation and the two big guns in the bullpen, and you have a disaster.") Yost himself was caught by surprise, and the move now puts the onus for the rest of the season squarely on the players. (Both stories Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) Yahoo! Sports' Gordon Edes says Brewers owner Mark Attanasio wasn't willing to sit idly by while the season went down in flames.
ON THE BRIGHTER SIDE . . . His replacement is old friend Dave Sveum, the Red Sox' third-base coach in 2004 and '05, and that makes Terry Francona happy. (projo.com)
'OUR WORK HERE IS DONE': Also happy are these folks.
TIME TO MOVE ON: The Houston Chronicle's Richard Justice says the Astros have to put the post-Ike/games-in-Milwaukee madness behind them and refocus on the task at hand.
TIP OF THE HAT: Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre salutes Francisco Rodriguez and says he doesn't think there's a breakdown coming in his future. (San Bernardino Sun)
WILL THERE BE A BIG RED BULL'S-EYE IN CENTER FIELD? Target purchased naming rights to the Twins' new stadium. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
LOCAL BOYS: Paul Konerko expects to return to the White Sox' lineup tonight. (Chicago Tribune)
HERE AND THERE: Bob Sheppard won't be able to make it to Yankee Stadium for the final game next Sunday (Newsday) . . . It doesn't appear as if the Mets have interest in Francisco Rodriguez (Newsday) . . . Matt Holliday does a nice I-love-it-here-and-want-to-stay dance, but he also makes it clear that if he doesn't get what he wants contractually from the Rockies, he's leaving (Rocky Mountain News) . . . On the same night Dontrelle Willis returned, the Tigers announced that Kenny Rogers' season, and probably his Detroit career, is over. (Detroit News)
OLD FRIENDS: Now that they've decided to take him out of the closer's role, the Diamondbacks face the dilemma of whether or not to bring Brandon Lyon back in 2009 (Arizona Republic) . . . David Murphy's season is over. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
AND FINALLY . . . Tired of the hankie fest accompanying the last gasps of the old ball orchard in the South Bronx? (And if you're not, trust me, you will be.) Leave it to my old friend Repoz to come up with a Yankee Stadium memory that -- in the words of the great Dickie Dunn -- captures the spirit of the thing. (Bronx Banter)
-- ART MARTONE