NEW YORK -- It's a little disconcerting to hear the manager of the Yankees openly hoping that a series with the Red Sox would "bring out the best" in his team.
And almost as disconcerting to hear the manager of the Red Sox admit that the Sox are "still taking one step forward and one step back."
But that's where we are in the American League East, perilously close to the 40-game mark that is supposed to define teams, but without much definition at all about the sport's two superpowers.
We're at a point where one rival scout could walk away from Friday's 5-4 Boston win and declare, "The Yankees are in trouble," but also at a point where that sounds needlessly harsh.
What seems more reasonable is to say that these are two very talented teams with very big issues -- but not necessarily season-killing issues.
The issues have allowed the Rays to sneak into first place, which just adds to the questions about both the Yankees and the Red Sox.
On one side:
-- It really does feel like the Red Sox follow every step forward with a step back. But maybe it feels more like that because even though the Red Sox have followed their 2-10 start by going 16-10 since (basically a 100-win pace over a full season), their overall record is still disappointing.
-- John Lackey's problems are a real issue. It's obvious he's distracted, and easy to believe that a family medical issue is the reason. The Red Sox understandably want to be compassionate, and Lackey apparently wants to pitch through the trouble, but the time may be coming when the team tells him that it's best not to.
-- The Sox have consistently stood behind Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and even on Friday general manager Theo Epstein spoke of the improvement he sees. But the Sox are getting less offense from the catcher spot than any team but the Joe Mauer-less Twins, and rival scouts are suggesting that Saltalamacchia's game-calling skills are hurting the pitching staff (along with his inability to throw out runners trying to steal).
On the other side:
-- The Yankees haven't hit well this week, and every time they struggle at the plate, someone says they're too old. The daily Derek Jeter questions have slowed after he got a few hits, but now there are daily questions about Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. Are they old or simply slumping? By the end of the year, maybe we'll know.
-- The rotation has been somewhat better than advertised, despite the Phil Hughes saga. But even with another encouraging start from Bartolo Colon Friday, you wonder how long Colon and Freddy Garcia will hold up, and who will be next in line if they don't?
-- The answer to the rotation questions was supposed to be a shutdown bullpen, but the road to Mariano Rivera is still paved with questions. Rafael Soriano hasn't yet been worth the money, and Joba Chamberlain is at times brilliant ("Best I've ever seen him," one scout said Friday afternoon) and at other times his usual puzzle (three huge hits, including a Kevin Youkilis home run, in Friday's decisive seventh inning).
Put it all together, and you start to understand why neither of these teams is in first place, why Joe Girardi was hoping for a Red Sox-fueled revival this weekend, and why Terry Francona was admitting that his Sox team is "certainly not clicking on all cylinders."
Forty games won't be enough to get a true handle on either of these teams.
Check back after 80.