OK, so maybe Brian Cashman didn’t get that exact e-mail from George Steinbrenner, but it could have happened. Steinbrenner, who spends most of his time in Tampa these days, has to be wondering what happened to his $183 million romp through the American League East. A lead that was 11 games just eight days ago has dwindled to five, and a race that looked as over as the Dream Team concept is now the third-closest divisional battle in baseball.

I don’t remember if I wrote this–it may have been one of those things I said on radio a lot that never made the column–but what the Yankees’ bought themselves by separating from the Red Sox in July was time. That three-game sweep capped by the July 1 classic at Yankee Stadium stretched the gap to seven games. (Peter Gammons noted that the Yankees had never blown a 6.5-game lead.) The lead would allow the Yankees to let Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown and Jason Giambi to heal without pressure to return, and would minimize the need to make a deal at the end of July.

Over the next five weeks, the Yankees leveraged a soft schedule–wrapped around a series loss to the Sox at Fenway–to stretch their record to 75-41.

The cushion is now gone, and the Yankees are left having not only to defend what was once theirs unchallenged, but they have to do so as some key elements of their success are losing their effectiveness. Foremost among them is the bullpen, which has been worked harder than Larry Brown’s patience this summer.

Actually, a closer look reveals that it’s mostly Paul Quantrill who’s suffering from the workload:

                          Pre-ASB                    Post-ASB
                   IP    RA   OPS   K/9        IP    RA   OPS   K/9
Mariano Rivera   45.1  0.99   522  7.15      17.1  2.60   610  7.79
Tom Gordon       50.2  1.78   467  8.53      17.2  2.55   574 13.76
Paul Quantrill   56.0  3.38   667  3.70      21.0  6.00   821  2.57

In 2002 and 2003, Joe Torre had some difficulty adapting to a roster that didn’t include enough quality relievers for his managerial style. Except for a brief period late last year, the Yankees have lacked a useful left-handed reliever since ’02, and the current team has a big drop-off in quality after the big three right-handers. With Quantrill getting pounded, Torre has seen his options limited. A rotation averaging less than five innings a start since the All-Star break has just compounded the problem. Right now, the Yankees don’t have one of top five pitching staffs in the American League, and that’s with Orlando Hernandez making a late run at Comeback Player of the Year.

At the same time, the Yankee offense is hurting, down nearly a run a game in the second half. With their batting average and slugging unchanged, the difference is a sudden loss in plate discipline: from one walk every nine plate appearances before the break to one every 11 PAs since. That’s 20 points of OBP, more than enough to turn an offensive machine into something incapable of supporting this pitching staff.

While the Yankees are struggling, the Red Sox have ridden their own light schedule to their high point of the season. The Sox are in the middle of seven consecutive series against teams currently under .500, and have taken advantage to the tune of 14-6 so far. That’s the way to get back in a race: beat the teams you should beat.

Some people have drawn a connection between the run and the improved defense post-Nomar Garciaparra. A stat is making the rounds–Rany Jazayerli was asked about it in his chat session last week–that Boston’s batting average allowed on balls in play has dropped, while the Cubs’ has risen, since the deal. While you can expect some improvement in the Sox’s defense, those numbers likely have more to do with opponents and ballparks–the Cubs played three games in Coors Field, which is great for balls in play–than they reflect changes in the teams.

Run prevention isn’t why the Sox are 14-6 since Aug. 2. The Sox have gone nuts at the plate, scoring 6.5 runs a game in August. Bill Mueller has come back after a slow start following his huge 2003 performance, while Kevin Millar and Jason Varitek are having 1000 OPS months. Manny Ramirez took part ownership of the White Sox over the weekend. This is the offense the Sox have been waiting for all season.

Some of what we’re seeing here is regression to the mean. Remember that the Yankees and Red Sox have never been separated by anything like 11 games in their underlying performance or in their talent, and it would have been surprising had that difference held. With that said, it’s still going to be hard for them to catch the Yankees. If the Yankees limp to the finish at 19-20, the Sox would need to play .625 ball just to tie them, and I think the Yankees will exceed that record.

In other words, the whispers of revenge for 1978 can cease.

However, every Sox win gives them some space in the wild-card chase, and a division title means a lot less to this franchise than a chance at their first world championship since 1918. If they’re the last team standing, no one will remember if they came in through the front door or the back door.

And then George Steinbrenner might just send that e-mail to Brian Cashman.