Just when you thought the Yankees and the Red Sox had exhausted all possible manifestation of their intense rivalry ... here come the ballots for the American League Cy Young Award.

Both AL East kingpins have suited up their fair share of pitchers on the receiving end of their art's highest award, with Pedro Martinez (1999 and 2000) and Roger Clemens (2001) keeping the honor in the I-95 corridor.

But Yankees and Red Sox pitchers have never contested the same Cy Young Award, never finishing in the top two in the vote since the award's inception in 1956.

Well, there is always a first time. Boston's Josh Beckett and New York's Chien-Ming Wang are the respective leaders of their postseason-bound staffs, and both will receive ample support among the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. They are hardly running a match race, but their season-long excellence on the road to 20 wins will be hard to ignore.

Their most serious competition will come from another undisputed staff ace, C.C. Sabathia, the big chief of the Cleveland Indians. Right-handers John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar, virtually peers in the Angels rotation, figure to cancel each other out in the voting booth.

As for relievers, they are simply not invited to this party. The last closer to earn the award, even as saves totals keep skyrocketing, was Dennis Eckersley, back in 1992. The highest-ranking closer in the vote last year -- even after a season without a 20-game winner -- was Francisco Rodriguez, whose 47 saves were worth five ballot points out of a possible 140.

Maybe it is time that closers had their own comparable award. The potential inspiration for that is still among us -- San Diego's Trevor Hoffman, who with 519 saves has already surpassed the 511 wins by the pitcher whose name is on the Cy Young Award.

FAVORITES

Wang, Yankees: If Cy Young balloting were like some cell phone plans, Wang would be a shoo-in thanks to rollover votes. He didn't receive a single first-place vote last year, even though he matched winner Johan Santana's 19-6 record. So now he is producing a carbon copy, with no one even close to his two-year record of 37-12 (Santana is 34-17, Justin Verlander 33-14, Roy Halladay 30-12). But what makes Wang truly stand out is his responsibility for the Yankees' contention, through his remarkable consistency. He has not made it to at least the sixth inning only twice in 27 starts.

»» 2007 AWARDS CANDIDATES ««
• Most Valuable Player: AL | NL
• Cy Young Award: AL | NL
• Rookie of the Year: AL | NL
• Manager of the Year: AL | NL
• Comeback Player of the Year: AL | NL

Beckett, Red Sox: Despite a fresh face (Daisuke Matsuzaka) and a cured arm (Curt Schilling), the cognoscenti tabbed Beckett as the key man on Boston's staff -- and he has delivered splendidly, also delivering on his potential. For the fourth consecutive season, Beckett has raised his victory total and has become a smart pitcher, not just a hothead thrower. Leading evidence of that is having more than halved both his walks (74 to 36) and homer yields (36 to 14). But he doesn't stand out on his staff as Wang does on his; not even close.

Sabathia, Indians: Finishing strong to give Cleveland its first 20-game winner since Gaylord Perry (1974) could sway the voting in the big left-hander's behalf. He is certainly worthy, with an amazing strikeouts-to-walks ratio (185-to-33) for a tall lefty -- historically the mold for wildness. Has already posted career highs in innings and strikeouts while matching his single-season high of 17 wins. Eight of his wins have followed Tribe losses.

DARK HORSES

Lackey, Angels: A rocky four-start stretch beginning in mid-August probably ejected the right-hander from possibly even the favorite's seat. He surrendered 26 hits and 13 runs in 17 2/3 innings around his clutch Aug. 27 shutout in Seattle. But remember that word "clutch," as well as "workhorse"; he has gone seven-plus innings in 13 of his last 23 starts. And his 8-1 record against the other AL West teams is a big reason for the Angels pulling away from the division.

Escobar, Angels: Many consider the one-time reliever and swing starter the Angels' best money pitcher, who has really flourished once given a permanent place in the rotation. And he could very well end up leading the league in ERA -- on the 30th anniversary of the last time an Angels hurler did so, Frank Tanana in 1977. But he and Lackey are essentially the same pitcher, with virtually identical numbers.

HONORABLE MENTION

Fausto Carmona, Indians; Erik Bedard, Orioles; J.J. Putz, Mariners; Joe Borowski, Indians; Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox; Santana, Twins; Verlander, Tigers