The Red Sox may have faltered last year, but I think their offseason upgrades at shortstop, right field and in the rotation have put them back in a dead heat with the Yankees. I’ll save my breakdown for next week’s series in the Bronx, however, because, with Hideki Matsui and three starting pitchers due to be activated from the disabled list between now and then, this simply isn’t the same Yankee team. As a result, all of the pressure is on the Red Sox this weekend. They can’t afford not to take at least two of three from the dilapidated Yanks in their home park, especially when they’ve got their top three starters lined up against the likes of Jeff Karstens, who will come off the DL tomorrow to make just his seventh career major league start, and Chase Wright, who will take his second big league turn on Sunday.
The Yankees, meanwhile, will be content to win just one, though there’s still some pressure in that the most favorable pitching match up for them is tonight’s marquee battle between Curt Schilling and Andy Pettitte and a sweep would be disastrous regardless of the shape of the Yankee roster. These teams are too evenly matched for either to shrug off surrendering three games in the standings, no matter how early it is.
The good news for the Yankees is that the Red Sox, with the exceptions of J. D. Drew and David Ortiz (of course), aren’t really hitting. Jason Varitek looks as done as he did last year if not more so. Coco Crisp, who was expected to bounce back following a season hampered by a hand injury, has yet to rebound. Rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia is third on the team in walks, but has contributed almost nothing else. Manny Ramirez is off to a brutally slow start, finally hitting his first homer of the year yesterday. Kevin Youkilis has been only a hair better than Manny. Mike Lowell isn’t getting on base, and Julio Lugo isn’t showing any power.
Rather the Sox have been getting it all done on pitching. Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield have all been excellent the first three times through the rotation, and Julian Tavarez (a placeholder for the progressing Jon Lester) had a good outing against the Blue Jays yesterday. The bullpen has been more problematic, but Jonathan Papelbon, Brendan Donnelly, and unheralded Japanese lefty Hideki Okajima have allowed just one run between them (a homer off Okajima) in 16 innings, striking out 22 against just four hits.
For his part, Schilling recovered from a shaky Opening Day outing in Kansas City to post the following combined line in his last two starts against the Rangers and Angels:
15 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 BB, 10 K, 2-0, 0.60 ERA
Fortunately, Andy Pettitte’s been almost as good over his last two outings against the Twins and A’s:
13 IP, 10 H, 1 ER, 0 HR, 2 BB, 7 K, 1-1, 0.69 ERA
Andy’s also a lefty facing a lineup in which the only two hot hitters are the only two lefties. In fact, the Red Sox have been sitting the fragile Drew against lefties in favor of Wily Mo Peña, as if Trot Nixon never left.
As for the Yankees, a week and a half ago I wrote: “The Yankee starters finished their first trip through the rotation with a 9.97 ERA. That was no more likely to hold up than the bullpen’s current 1.07 ERA or the offense’s 6.83 runs per game.”
Indeed, the Yankee starters ERA has dropped by more than half to 4.52, the pen ERA has more than doubled to 2.69, and the offense has scored . . . well 6.5 runs per game, actually. That’s a 1053-run pace with Matsui on the shelf for most of it, Melky not hitting in his place and Doug Mientkiewicz starting the majority of the games at first base. In other words, Alex Rodriguez will cool off (he won’t hit 116 home runs this year, you heard it here first), but the Yankees have the opportunity to compensate with a healthy Matsui and an upgrade at first, which could be as simple as giving the job to Josh Phelps. Wow.
What this weekend’s series comes down to is a match-up between the major league’s most potent offense and the major league’s stingiest pitching staff (2.57 R/G). In an identical number of games, the Yankee offense has scored 55 more runs than the Red Sox’s pitchers have allowed, that’s 253 percent as many runs (or, inversely, just 40 percent as many allowed by the Sox). The Yankees faced a similar situation heading into Oakland last week and played three games decided in the victor’s final at-bat. Here’s hoping this series is similarly exciting.
Note: The Yankees have optioned Darrell Rasner to Scranton in order to add Colter Bean to the bullpen for tonight’s game. Rasner was going to be squeezed out of the rotation anyway by the returns of Karstens (tomorrow), Wang (Tuesday), and Mussina (hopefully Friday). Bean, however, will likey be sent right back to Scranton tomorrow when Karstens is activated. It’s a smart move to maximize the roster, just as they did by adding Chris Britton to the pen this past Sunday when Mussina and Pavano hit the DL, but it’s unfortunate that their one game with a nine-man pen will come on the night that they have their best available starter pitching. Bean was outstanding in spring training, but has had a rough early going in triple-A this year. It wouldn’t be a wise move necessarily, but part of me would love to see him come in as a ROOGY to retire Manny in a big spot tonight. Rasner, meanwhile, acquitted himself well in his last two starts after struggling with what was described as a weather-related blister problem in his first start. I can’t quite figure out how extreme cold can lead to blisters, unless his problem was that his fingers were being rubbed raw. Nonetheless, there was no mention of a reoccurrence in either of his last two outings and he said he felt really good after yesterday’s start despite his early exit.
Boston Red Sox
2006 Record: 86-76 (.531)
2006 Pythagorean Record: 81-81 (.500)
Manager: Terry Francona
General Manager: Theo Epstein
Home Ballpark (2006 Park Factors): Fenway Park (102/101)
Who’s Replacing Whom?
Dustin Pedroia replaces Mark Loretta
Julio Lugo replaces Alex Gonzalez
J. D. Drew replaces Trot Nixon and Gabe Kapler
Daisuke Matsuzaka replaces David Wells, Matt Clement (DL) and Kyle Snyder’s starts
Julian Tavarez replaces Jon Lester (DL), Lenny DiNardo and Jason Johnson
Brendan Donnelly replaces Julian Tavarez’s relief innings
J. C. Romero replaces Keith Foulke
Hideki Okajima replaces Rudy Seanez and Javier Lopez (minors)
Joel Pineiro replaces Manny Delcarmen
Kyle Snyder replaces Craig Hansen
Opening Day Roster:
1B – Kevin Youkilis (R)
2B – Dustin Pedroia (R)
SS – Julio Lugo (R)
3B – Mike Lowell (R)
C – Jason Varitek (S)
RF – J. D. Drew (L)
CF – Coco Crisp (S)
LF – Manny Ramirez (R)
DH – David Ortiz (L)
L – Eric Hinske (UT)
L – Alex Cora (IF)
R – Wily Mo Peña (OF)
R – Doug Mirabelli (C)
R – Curt Schilling
R – Josh Beckett
R – Daisuke Matsuzaka
R – Tim Wakefield
R – Julian Tavarez
R – Jonathan Papelbon
R – Mike Timlin
R – Brendan Donnelly
L – J. C. Romero
L – Hideki Okajima
R – Joel Pineiro
R – Kyle Snyder
15-day DL: R – Jon Lester, R – Matt Clement
R – Julio Lugo (SS)
R – Kevin Youkilis (1B)
L – David Ortiz (DH)
R – Manny Ramirez (RF)
L – J. D. Drew (RF)*
R – Mike Lowell (3B)
S – Jason Varitek (C)
S – Coco Crisp (CF)
R – Dustin Pedroia (2B)
*The Sox’s last two starts against lefties have seen J. D. Drew sit in favor of Wily Mo Peña. In that lineup, Crisp hits second, Youkilis hits fifth, and Peña hits eighth.