One month in, the AL East race has solidified

The 2017 offseason has given the American League East baseball's a few of baseball's most gripping story lines in 2018.  Most prominently, the Red Sox and Yankees have positioned themselves with stacked rosters, leading to the tantalizing possibility of the greatest rivalry in sports reaching a level close to the zenith of the early 2000s.  Acquisitions JD Martinez and Giancarlo Stanton have, in the eyes of many, made Boston and New York the prohibitive favorites not only in the division, but the entire American League.  The Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays have been largely cast aside as having no chance at keeping up with the juggernauts at the top.  Thirty games into the new season, is the division panning out the way most believed it would, or have there been some surprises?

Despite winning back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history, the Red Sox entered 2018 relatively under the radar.  With the Yankees and Stanton sending shock waves throughout the baseball world, Boston's winter was relatively quiet.  After much hemming and hawing, Martinez was finally brought into the fold, but the rest of the 2017 group has returned, with the exception of rookie skipper Alex Cora taking the reins from maligned manager John Farrell.  The major concern was that the team had not matched the firepower added in New York in the offseason, and despite winning 93 games in each of the last two years, many saw the Red Sox as the flawed team that has struggled to a 1-6 record in the postseasons of 2016 and 2017.

After an Opening Day defeat that saw Boston squander a late lead to lowly Tampa Bay, the Red Sox turned the baseball world on its head.  Over the next three weeks, Boston won 17 of 18 games to establish a 5 game lead in the division.  To that point, everything Cora touched turned to gold.  The strength of the team, its starting pitching, more than carried its weight out of the gates.  Chris Sale built upon his phenomenal 2017, and Rick Porcello seemed to be turning the clock back to his Cy Young campaign two years prior.

Just as crucial, the Sox' offense in April showed signs of the firepower that was so desperately needed by last year's group.  After a shaky first week, JD Martinez has been everything Boston fans expected and more, hitting .345 with an incredible 24 RBI in 29 games played.  Mookie Betts looks healthy once more, already amassing 12 HR in the first month of play.  No stat better captures the difference in the Red Sox offense this season than their unusual success hitting grand slams.  After not registering a single slam all of 2017, this year's group has already belted six, two by Xander Bogaerts. 


However, the Red Sox' improbable start could not last forever.  The last two weeks have seen the team stumble to seven losses in 12 games, including losing two of three to Tampa at home.  David Price has been at the forefront of a rotation that has scuffled mightily in recent games.  After two impeccable starts out of the gate, Price's ERA has jumped to 5.11, and, because it's David Price, drama has ensued.  Price's removal after surrendering four runs in one inning to the Yankees have led many to suspect Price tapped out.  Regardless, Price must be better if Boston wants to reclaim its winning ways.  The same must be said for Drew Pomeranz, who simply has not looked solid following an injury in camp.

The Yankees' season has, in many ways, been the complete opposite as Boston's.  With the weight of the highest expectations levied on the team in years, the Bronx Bombers limped to a 9-9 start.  No Yankee took the heat more than Stanton, who was whiffing at a historic rate.  After registering two five strikeout games in a span of a week, the boo birds were out in force for the newest Yankee.  Struggling even more than Stanton was Gary Sanchez, whose average was hovering below .100 in mid-April.  At their lowest point, New York sat 7.5 games out of first.

Just as Boston's fortunes began to head South, the Yankees got hot.  After the aforementioned 9-9 start, the Yankees have ripped off wins in 12 of their last 13 games.  Stanton is emerging from his funk, and while still striking out a lot is up to 7 HR.  Aaron Judge continues to prove 2017 was no fluke, hitting close to .300 with 7 HR and 19 RBI.  Didi Gregorius has been a revelation, currently leading MLB with 30 RBI and picking up the slack when Stanton and Sanchez were struggling.

Most importantly, the pitching has been stellar, the focal point being Luis Severino and his 2.11 ERA.  A deficit that seemed daunting at 7.5 games has almost entirely vanished, with the Yankees only a single game back of the Red Sox.  At this point, all the pressure is on Boston, who not only must stop the bleeding, but has to travel to Yankee Stadium for three with their rivals next week.


Not to be forgotten in the AL East race is Toronto, who jumped out to a surprisingly strong start.  The Jays' were pegged by many as on the decline, with nowhere near the capability to compete with Boston and New York.  However, Toronto started the year 13-6 and with a sizable lead on the third-place Yankees.  Toronto has struggled since that point, currently sitting at 18-14 and 4.5 games off the pace set by the Red Sox.  As of now, the Jays cannot be dismissed in any talk of a two-team race for the division crown.  The next month will be critically important in determining if Toronto has the horses to stay within shouting distance of the division lead, or if they fade from the scene completely.

While both the Red Sox and Yankees took circuitous paths to where they currently sit, the AL East seems to be unfolding pretty much as everyone thought.  The Blue Jays are still technically in the picture, but it does not appear on paper like they can win at the pace Boston and New York are expected to.  The Yankees entered the year slightly favored by many in the public, and the first month should not do anything to dissuade that.  Clearly, the Yankees have the momentum despite their second place standing.  However, the Red Sox should not lose too much sleep over their lead vanishing.  22-9 may seem a bit sour after a 17-2 start, but any Red Sox fan would have signed up for that on opening day.  The same can be said for the Yankees at 21-10.  Nothing on either team suggests that one team will be able to run away and hide from the other, and the AL East promises to be wildly entertaining as the two storied enemies jockey for position this summer.  The rivalry has already shown signs of life with Joe Kelly and Tyler Austin squaring off in a fight that hearkened back to the days of A-Rod and Jason Varitek.  If fans of baseball get their wish, this race just might come down to the final three days of the season between the two at Fenway.

   

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