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Why This Is a Critical Week For the Yankees

The New York Yankees have the best record in baseball (and the race isn't particularly close). They are closing in on their first 100-win season in five years and have been alone in first place for nearly two months. Their lineup is stacked with MVP candidates, their rotation is topped by a former Cy Young winner at the height of his powers, and their bullpen is anchored by the greatest closer in history.

So why are Yankees fans feeling a little queasy as the season enters its final two weeks?

Okay, perhaps "queasy" is a bit strong. The Yankees are headed to October for the 14th time in the last 15 years, and you don't amass a record like theirs (95-55) -- in the AL East, no less -- without being a fabulous team. Just two weeks ago, in fact, the Yankees appeared utterly flawless, and folks were beginning to draw comparisons to the 1998 Yankee juggernaut that went 125-50, including a sweep of San Diego in the World Series.

But on the eve of what looms as a huge week for the Yankees -- three games in Anaheim, beginning Monday night, followed by three at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox -- it's doubtful you will find a Yankees fan who has that '98 feeling about this year's squad anymore.

The evidence is right there in the standings, where the Yankees' lead over the surging Red Sox, now five games, is their smallest since Aug. 7.

More troubling, since an overpowering four-game sweep of Tampa Bay two weeks ago -- stretching their AL East lead, at the time, to nine games -- the Yankees have seen Andy Pettitte come down with shoulder soreness, A.J. Burnett continue a puzzling stretch that has seen him win just once since the start of August, and Joba Chamberlain look like someone trying to pitch his way out of an October rotation spot.

It's no wonder the Yankees hope to snag a spot in the oddly configured "A" Division Series bracket, because the extra off-day between Games 1 and 2 will allow them to go without a fourth starter -- which is to say, without Chamberlain -- in the first round.

Contrast the Yankees' increasing instability in their rotation to the Red Sox's increasing stability -- highlighted by Josh Beckett's return to form and Daisuke Matsuzaka's return to health -- and it's easy to see why the title of best team in the AL is slowly shifting towards Boston.

The Yankees/Red Sox race is without its typical drama this fall -- the collapse of the Rays and Rangers in recent weeks ensures both New York and Boston will make the playoffs, so the only race is for seeding -- but not without serious implications.

The Yankees need to maintain their hold on first place for several reasons, chiefly because they would much rather face the reeling Tigers in the first round (assuming the Tigers hold off the Twins) than the relentless Angels, against whom they are 9-17 the past three seasons.

If the Yankees come out of this week in decent shape -- we'll define that as Pettitte looking sound Monday night, Burnett and Chamberlain looking decent, and a 3-3 record or better, combined, against the Angels and Red Sox -- we'll gladly revisit the question of who is the best team in the AL.

But at this point, there is no question at all in our minds: It's the Red Sox.

By Dave Sheinin  |  September 21, 2009; 3:45 PM ET
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