The Yankees’ current six-game winning streak has been extremely fruitful. By sweeping the A’s and Twins, the Yanks have surged into second place in the Wild Card race and enter this weekend’s three-game series against the Red Sox just three games behind both the Sox and the Rays in the AL East. Another sweep would put them in a tie with Boston for second place in the east and the Wild Card lead. A 2-1 series loss, however, would put them four games behind Boston, as many as five games behind the Rays (who play the Royals this weekend), and could even drop them back behind the Twins (who play the Indians). It’s thus imperative that the Yankees at the very least take two of three this weekend. The question is: can they do it?
Let’s look at the pitching match-ups first. The Yankees have two of their best starters going in the first two games. Joba Chamberlain, who starts tonight, has a 2.41 ERA over his last seven starts, including a quality start against the Red Sox at the Stadium three weeks ago. Andy Pettitte has a 2.18 ERA over his last eight starts, but the one real dud in that stretch came at home against the Sox (4 2/3 IP, 6 R). Both have been better on the road than at home, but neither has pitched at Fenway this season.
Opposing Joba tonight will be Josh Beckett, who is one of the few Red Sox pitchers who has pitched worse at home than on the road. Beckett has a 4.82 ERA at Fenway this year and gave up five runs in five innings to the Twins in his last home start two turns ago. At the same time, he’s already turned in three quality starts against the Yanks this year, including one at Fenway in April, though he has allowed the maximum three runs in each of those starts for a 3.92 ERA against the Bombers.
Tim Wakefield, who faces Pettitte tomorrow afternoon on FOX, has a 3.04 ERA at Fenway and a 2.43 ERA over his last ten starts, including a quality start at the Stadium that left Chamberlain with yet another no-decision.
The finale, which will be ESPN’s Sunday night game, pits Sidney Ponson against Jon Lester. Lester is one of the great stories of this season, having rebounded from non-Hodgkins lymphoma to not only throw a no-hitter, but have a great season overall. Lester has a 3.20 ERA on the season, a 2.93 ERA at home, and needed just 105 pitches to shutout the Yankees on five hits and two walks while striking out eight in his only start against the Bombers this season. That said, he’s been inconsistent of late. Lester’s no-hitter came in the middle of a run of 11 starts from the end of April to late June in which the lefty posted a 2.13 ERA. Since then, however, he’s alternated dominant starts (including his shutout of the Yankees) with non-quality outings. If the pattern holds, he’s due for a stinker, but his dominance of the Yankees in their last meeting and overall success this season is the better indicator of what he’s likely to do Sunday night.
That means Ponson has his work cut out for him. Before his last start, I wrote that Ponson’s surprisingly successful season has been the result of a sharp increase in his groundball rate. The problem is that Fenway Park has a notoriously hard infield, which can cause trouble for groundball pitchers (Chien-Ming Wang’s career ERA at Fenway is 5.11, and in his complete-game two-hitter there this April, he got more outs in the air than on the ground). Ponson hasn’t faced the Red Sox this year, but historically, the Sox’s lineup own him (David Ortiz: .444/.563/.722; Manny Ramirez: .404/.481/.511; Jason Varitek: .317/.364/.561; Kevin Youkilis: 4 for 9 with a double; J.D. Drew: 3 for 7 with a double; Dustin Pedroia: 3 for 3), the only exception being Mike Lowell, who is 0 for 7 with a walk against Ponson. Lester would have to implode completely for the Yankees to overcome what’s likely to happen to Ponson on Sunday night.
That means the Yankees hopes for a series win lie in the first two games, both of which have the potential to be tightly-contested pitchers’ duels. The Yankees scored 25 runs in their three-game sweep of the Twins and are averaging 6.3 runs per game since the All-Star break, but the Twins helped out with some sloppy and absent-minded play in the field, and the Bomber bats struggled to solve Sean Gallagher and Justin Duchscherer in the A’s series, as the Yankees won both games by just one run thanks in large part to strong pitching performances from Chamberlain, Pettitte, and the bullpen. That pattern may have to repeat itself in order for the Yankees to win these first two games.
The good news is that the Red Sox aren’t scoring. While the Yankees scored 25 runs in the Twins series alone, the Red Sox have scored just 22 runs since the All-Star break, an average of 3.67 per game. They opened the second half by getting swept in Anaheim with Beckett and Wakefield receiving two and three runs of support, respectively. They then swept the Mariners in Seattle, but averaged just 3.67 runs per game during regulation in that series, requiring extra innings to pull out the finale.
The bad news is that the Sox just activated David Ortiz off the disabled list, which could give their offense the jump-start it needs. Manny Ramirez, despite the affront of his flopping-fish routine in Anahiem, has hit .471/.609/.765 since the break, giving Ortiz the protection he’ll need to get back in the groove. Still, one wonders what lingering effects, if any, will Ortiz’s wrist injury have on his swing. The Yankees haven’t really had to sweat Ortiz yet this year. He’s was on the DL during their most recent series against the Red Sox, and when they faced him in April, he was slumping horribly. Ortiz went 1-for-17 against the Yankees in April, his only time on base coming via a single. At the end of that stretch, he was hitting .111/.222/.159 on the season. Starting the next day and leading up to his injury, however, he was back to his old tricks, hitting .313/.408/.626.
So the question is, will Ortiz come off the DL as hot as he was when he went on it, or will he have to fight through a repeat of those April doldrums in order to get back in the swing? The discouraging news is that Ortiz hit .313/.450/.875 with three home runs in his recent five-game rehab assignment. Less discouraging is the fact that nearly all of that, including all three home runs, came in Double-A.
It’s up to Joba to get Ortiz off on the wrong foot and the Yankees on the right foot tonight in what will be the biggest start of his admittedly very young career as a major league starting pitcher, and up to the Yankee bats to reward him for doing so by getting to Josh Beckett early. (Seriously, can we get this kid another win already?)
As for the Yankees chances of taking the series, the Red Sox have a 13-2 record in series at Fenway this year (including a 2-1 series win over the Yankees in April) and a staggering .766 winning percentage in home games. They’ve scored just 4.34 runs per game on the road, but 5.83 R/G at home, while the Yankees have scored just 4.33 runs per game on the road. That alone tilts the odds against the New York nine, but I think Chamberlain and Pettitte can get the job done. The only question is if the offense has built enough confidence and momentum to finish the job. I sure hope so.