Four-get worrying about Red Sox;

Four-game lead. Four reasons to hit the panic button. Or, as an alternative, four reasons to relax and enjoy the ride (admit it – it would be a lot less interesting if New York wasn’t breathing down Boston’s neck):

Because I’m in a good mood, I’ll start with the four reasons to think a four-game lead is plenty of cushion:

1) Eric Gagne can’t possibly continue to pitch this poorly. It takes time to adjust going from a closer to a set-up guy. Gagne seems willing and eager to make that adjustment. Plus, Jason Varitek is just getting to know him. Perhaps he’ll even learn within the next few days that Gagne can throw a curve and a pretty mean change-up. That’s handy information to have when dead fastball hitters like Miguel Tejada are in the batter’s box.

2) Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew are starting to hit more consistently. Going into Monday night, Lugo was hitting .340 and Drew .433 in their last 10 games. They’re getting on base. Nobody’s knocking them in, of course, but that’s for later in the discussion.

3) They’ve still got Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Beckett appears to have snapped out of a July funk, having given up just three earned runs in two August starts. Matsuzaka has been even more impressive, giving up five earned runs in just over 27 innings. A two-headed ace at the top of the rotation is a luxury few, if any teams, have in the American League.

4) The schedule. They have 16 games remaining with Tampa Bay and Baltimore, plus four with Chicago. They play 25 of their final 45 at Fenway, where they are 16 games over .500 this season. Their toughest road swing is a three-game series in New York at the end of the month. The Yankees, meanwhile, still have to go to LA, I mean, Anaheim, and Detroit and have a three-game set at home with wild-card rival Seattle. They also have a nine-game road trip coming up that ends with three at Fenway.

And now, four reasons to be concerned:

1) Terry Francona has morphed into Tony LaRussa since the Gagne acquisition. After four months of sticking with Hideki Okajima in the set-up role, regardless of who was hitting, Francona is suddenly beholden to the bullpen blueprint that has held so many managers hostage over the last 20 years. He’s forgotten that right-handers are hitting under .180 against Okajima. He also left Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen in the two late losses to Baltimore over the weekend, presumably waiting to use him in a save situation.

2) Lugo and Drew are hitting, but they’re still finding ways to kill the team. Both made terrible mental errors in the field that were critical to the losses in Baltimore. Drew failed to keep a ball in front of him late in Friday night’s loss, and Lugo didn’t get his glove down on a potential double-play grounder on Sunday. Speaking for myself, I’d rather see the ball hit to Manny Ramirez in the ninth inning of a one-run game than either of Theo Epstein’s glittering off-season acquisitions.

3) Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield and Jon Lester. Schilling pitched well Sunday, but until he strings a few strong starts in a row, there’s no reason to expect him to be anything but the inconsistent starter he’s been all year. Going into Monday night, Wakefield had given up fewer than four earned runs in only three starts in his last 10 starts. Lester is just as unpredictable as the knuckleballer. Two months ago, I never would have thought I’d say this, but I’d take the Yankees’ 3-4-5 (Mussina, Clemens, Hughes or Pettitte, Mussina, Hughes or whatever combo you want) over Boston’s right now.

4) The schedule. First, if the pitching rotation stays the way it is currently set up, the Yankees will only have to face either Beckett or Matsuzaka once in their remaining games with Boston. New York has 15 games left with Tampa and Baltimore, plus seven with Toronto, which is a little too preoccupied with Alex Rodriguez for my liking. They also have three left with the Royals who, unlike the Red Sox, they treat like the Royals when they play them. Finally, if it comes down to the last week of the season, the Yankees finish with the Devil Rays and the Orioles. The Red Sox finish with Oakland and Minnesota.

What happens in the next seven weeks could come down to these factors. Then again, Manny could decide he needs some time off and pretend he has a concussion. Either way, New England will be rife with angst.


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