October 13, 1999
New York Yankees vs. Boston Red SoxPossibly the best baseball rivalry in its biggest series since 1978. The atmosphere in both parks will be electric. Will the games live up to it?
The Yankees led the majors in Equivalent Average with a .281 mark, something of a surprise given that only Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams had particularly good years. As expected, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius declined. What kept the Yankee offense humming was the lack of any truly abysmal hitters: even the below-average Martinez and Brosius managed to stay well above replacement level.
The Yankees were second in the American League in OBP. It's not the nine-man juggernaut it was last year, when Brosius had a big year batting ninth and Jorge Posada posted an .825 OPS batting eighth. Still, the core of the offense--Chuck Knoblauch, Jeter and Williams--is undeniably excellent.
If you're looking for a weakness, here are two: when Joe Girardi starts behind the plate the lineup can break down badly at the bottom. Posada will catch Orlando Hernandez in Game 1, but after that, Girardi may start up to the next three games. Also, O'Neill and Martinez have large platoon splits, which Joe Torre refuses to acknowledge in doling out playing time or making out his lineups. In Game 1 against Kent Mercker, this will hurt the Yankees, and it could give Jimy Williams the opportunity to use Rheal Cormier aggressively in the rest of the series.
The Boston lineup doesn't measure up to that of the Yankees, mostly by design. The Sox play Darren Lewis, Damon Buford and Trot Nixon at two of the three outfield spots for their gloves, and pay a price. Their .258 EQA was just eighth in the league, and only Nomar Garciaparra, Jose Offerman and Brian Daubach are positives.
Their roles as Division Series heroes notwithstanding, Troy O'Leary and John Valentin are average at best, and you can say the same about Mike Stanley and Jason Varitek. This is a pedestrian lineup, and their otherworldly 60 hours of fun against a hurting, mishandled Indian pitching staff doesn't change that.
The Sox will score as many runs as Offerman and Garciaparra can produce. That's probably not going to be enough to stay with the Yankees.
Reserves aren't a strong suit for either team. The Yankees have a few players who can contribute, like Chad Curtis, Jim Leyritz and whichever of Darryl Strawberry or Chili Davis doesn't start at DH. But Luis Sojo and Clay Bellinger are wasted roster spots. Bellinger may be replaced by Shane Spencer depending on how the Yankees feel about O'Neill's rib; he would be a better use of the roster spot regardless.
The Boston bench looks a bit like the Braves. In part because of the concern over Garciaparra's right wrist and Valentin's left knee, the Sox are carrying two marginal backup infielders in Lou Merloni and Donnie Sadler. If they can replace one with Reggie Jefferson, it would be a big boost late in games when they need to hit for a center fielder. Scott Hatteberg is a good hitter for a backup catcher.
Had the Red Sox been able to win Game 5 of the Division Series without using Pedro Martinez, this would have been a completely different story. A rested Martinez, ready to pitch Games 1 and 5, would have changed the entire series storyline.
Alas, Martinez had to throw six of the most clutch innings in recent history just to get the Sox to this point, so Boston's rotation is in something of a shambles. The Sox will start Kent Mercker in Game 1 on three days rest. Mercker is coming off a 1 2/3-inning start in Game 4 of the ALDS, and is the most unlikely Game 1 starter since Bob Wolcott in the 1995 ALCS. Ramon Martinez will follow, and then the Sox get back on track with Pedro Martinez and Bret Saberhagen--who looks injured--in Games 3 and 4.
As mentioned earlier, Mercker's start in the first game may help the Sox exploit the problems Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez have with left-handed pitching. And with the exception of Pedro Martinez's starts, you can expect Williams to have a quick hook, attempting to maximize the number of innings pitched by his better relievers.
Obviously, this rotation pales next to that of the Yankees, which allowed just one run in the Division Series. Orlando Hernandez, David Cone, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte are the Yankees' strength in this series. A repeat of their performance against the Rangers may be a stretch, but a run of quality performances deep into games is likely.
The Yankee bullpen isn't as good as it has been in past years, although the cast is pretty much the same. Expect Joe Torre to use Ramiro Mendoza whenever his starter falters before the seventh inning and to make liberal use of Mike Stanton, Allen Watson and Jeff Nelson in one-batter situations.
Torre's use of Mariano Rivera for two innings in Game 3 of the Division Series was out of character. It was also absolutely the right thing to do. It will be interesting to see if he maintains that kind of aggressiveness with Rivera in this series.
The Sox bullpen is going to have to be more effective than it was in the Division Series. Derek Lowe is the best non-Pedro pitcher on the Sox staff, and Williams is willing to ride him to win the game he's playing, even if it means a three- or four-inning outing. He and Rheal Cormier are the keys to the Sox winning two of the five games Pedro Martinez doesn't start. Rich Garces is Boston's other quality reliever, a hard-throwing right-hander.
Cormier is the only left-hander in the Sox pen, which creates an interesting dilemma for Williams. Does he use Cormier in a Lowe-type role, for multiple innings, or does he save him to get O'Neill and Martinez in game situations in the seventh and eighth innings? The lack of a second left-hander, and what they do with Cormier because of it, will be a key element in this series for the Sox.
As mentioned, the Sox take a big offensive hit to play two gloves in the outfield. It's not for naught: Darren Lewis is a very good center fielder, and Trot Nixon above-average in right field with a strong arm. They keep runs off the board. The Sox infield defense isn't bad either, particularly on the left side, where John Valentin's erratic performance against the Indians isn't indicative of his ability.
The Yankee defense isn't as good, especially in the infield, where Chuck Knoblauch's throwing problems have been a season-long issue. Bernie Williams is a Gold Glove center fielder; he needs to be, with Ricky Ledee and Paul O'Neill flanking him. At catcher, Jorge Posada can throw; he blocks the plate like someone who studied under Joe Girardi.
It's a simple equation for the Sox: steal two of the five games Pedro Martinez doesn't start, and ride the meal ticket into the World Series. These teams are not evenly matched on the surface, and with the Yankee rotation clicking, it's hard to see how Boston can pull it off.
But Jimy Williams impressed me in the Division Series with his aggressiveness in using the bullpen, and I think he's going to play the matchup game well enough to keep his undermanned Sox in this thing. The Sox have about four good pitchers, and they're going to throw a lot of effective innings. Yankees in 6, and they'll know they've been in a fight.