Three-team AL East race tight as ever

Three-team AL East race tight as ever

NEW YORK -- The Yankees lost two out of three this week to the Phillies in a much awaited Interleague series between last year's World Series combatants at Yankee Stadium. And all it did was serve to tighten up the race in the rough, tough American League East.

At the same time the Rays lost two of three to the Braves in Atlanta, the Red Sox swept a trio from the meek D-backs at Fenway Park. And here comes Boston.

It may be only mid-June, but heading into this weekend's action, the Rays and Yanks remain tied atop the division and the Red Sox are suddenly just two games back. With a little more than 90 games left to play, the East race is an unfamiliar three-team tussle that could last all season.

"I think it will," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi after his club was spanked, 7-1, on Thursday night by a team it defeated last fall in six games. "We have good teams in our division and I think it's going to be a tough race throughout. There are going to be ups and downs for every team in this division. You've got to keep those down times as short as possible."

It can change just like that. The Yankees were riding high after defeating Roy Halladay on Tuesday night, but they managed just nine hits in losing to Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick the past two games. The Yanks had won seven out of eight before losing their offensive focus.

They now face the rival Mets at the Stadium, while the Red Sox host the Dodgers at Fenway Park and the Rays play the Marlins in Miami. All of the three-game sets begin on Friday night and the anticipation of an epic pennant race is just beginning.

Of this you can be certain: One of these teams will win the division, another will most likely win the AL Wild Card and the third will miss the playoffs.

"It's too early to be looking at scoreboards and standings and things like that," said Yanks captain Derek Jeter, who was 0-for-11 with two walks in the series. "I know where we are because it has been mentioned to me, but I don't worry about what other teams are doing. We're just trying to win games here. Our division has been tough for quite some time."

Still, a win in June is as important as one in September, so they say.

And the Yanks were a full six games in arrears of the Rays on May 23 before coming back to tie on June 13, as Tampa has played 9-13 ball since then. But now the Red Sox have snuck back into the race. Boston, seemingly crippled by injuries, was 8 1/2 games out on May 23. At that point, the Red Sox went into the Tropicana Dome and swept a three-game series from the Rays. They are 17-7 and have picked up 6 1/2 games in the standings since May 23.

"Like I always tell you guys, it's not how you start, it's how you finish," said David Ortiz after the Red Sox beat the D-backs, 8-5, on Thursday night. "I always say that. You should have that memo at home. There are a lot of games left. Things happen. It's a long season, man. I don't know why people freaked out at the very beginning. June doesn't determine what it's going to be like in October, either. We've got to keep playing, keep on winning games and see what happens later on."

Since 1995, the first full season of Wild Card berths and three-division play in each league, a team from the East has represented the AL in the World Series 10 times. Seven times since then, the Yankees and Red Sox have combined to win it all.

The Rays are relative newcomers, as they lost to the Phillies in the 2008 World Series when the Yankees had a rare off year. But as of this date, the Yanks and Rays are tied for the best record in Major League Baseball at 41-25, and the Red Sox, at 40-28, are also better than the rest.

That's how dominant the East has been during the past 16 years. And it's even better this season.

"I guess you have to imagine this is the way it's going to be all year long, because these teams are so good," said Yanks left-hander Andy Pettitte, who took the loss on Thursday night. "Even when you play Toronto, they're a tough opponent and they have some good young arms. It's definitely a tough division. It always has been. We know that. It's the same old story. We can't worry about anyone else. If we play well and pitch well, we feel like we're going to finish on top."

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. MLB.com reporter Ian Browne contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.