August 18, 2006
That Series You May Have Heard About
It's de rigeur, among a certain subset of baseball fans, to act bored with the idea of this weekend's Yankees/Red Sox five-game series. The rivalry between the two teams has been hyped to a point that exhausts fans with no particular loyalty to either brand, and honestly, to many of us who have a dog in the fight.
It's an odd year to be dismissive, because for the first time in a while, there's a real chance that the two teams are in a battle to the death. With the White Sox and Twins-also playing each other this weekend-both threatening to take the wild card, the AL East runner-up isn't assured a spot in the postseason, and in fact, is a statistical underdog to make October through the back door. Overhyped or no, these five games are going to help us determine which of these teams is the favorite to make the postseason.
Well, maybe. If the series is split 3-2, not much will change. Both teams will mostly maintain their current position leaving Boston, with both able to eye the division title and the wild card in proportional amounts. Should one of the two teams take four or even five games, however, it would be a significant change in the divisional story.
The Yankees, remember, were declared the favorite here and in many other places after their trade-deadline improvements. The pickups of Bobby Abreu, Cory Lidle and Craig Wilson shored up the roster and helped spark a 7-2 run that vaulted the Yankees into first. At the same time, the Red Sox followed a quiet deadline period by losing Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek, then watched Jonathan Papelbon blow a couple of games. Just a couple of days ago, the Yankees had a three-game lead and looked poised to run away. But the same Orioles who helped the Sox get back on track pounded the Yankees at the Stadium, leaving them just a game-and-a-half up going into today's first game.
It gets better for the Red Sox. Despite doing nothing to upgrade the roster at the deadline, Theo Epstein has been able to patch since then, working waiver deals for Javy Lopez and, just yesterday, Eric Hinske. While the former trade was the product of a bad team dumping an unhappy player, I'm puzzled as to how easy it was for the Sox to acquire Hinske from a nominal contender. The Blue Jays spent half the GNP of Ontario this winter in an effort to be taken seriously, then dealt away an 870-OPS hitter with six weeks to go for cash and a player to be named? It makes no sense to have paid Hinske for three years while he hit like a middle infielder, only to dump him when he's at his peak, signed for just one more season at reasonable money, and showing that he may well be in line for some Matt Stairs seasons. Unless the player to be named is surprisingly good, it's a loser for the Jays.
The two deals helped the Sox patch critical holes for little cost other than cash. Lopez may be in decline, but he's a major-league catcher and Ken Huckaby isn't. Hinske gives the Sox lefty OBP and pop to balance a lineup that became frightfully right-handed after the Nixon and Varitek owies. His opposite-field power should play well at Fenway Park, and even as a converted third baseman, he might be a better defensive right fielder than Wily Mo Pena is.
Despite savvy trading and payrolls that an oil company can envy, the Yankees and Red Sox remain flawed squads. Each will start a pitcher in this series who was dumped, justifiably, by their original employer. The Sox go with Jason Johnson in today's first game, while the Yankees counter with Sidney Ponson tonight. Both teams have struggled to find answers in middle relief; the Yankees have burnt Scott Proctor to a crisp, rushed Octavio Dotel back from rehab and gone through 35-year-olds with no future like a casting director for "The Shannen Doherty Story." The Red Sox have just two relievers with ERAs under 4.00 in at least ten innings pitched: Papelbon and Mike Timlin. If you're headed out to Fenway this week, pack a lunch, and maybe dinner, too. These games could easily rival the 2004 ALCS contests for length.
Where will we be on Monday? Most likely in the same place we are now. The Yankees are a slightly better team than the Red Sox, at least until the Devil Rays get into the AL East's act and send Carl Crawford north in exchange for Kason Gabbard and two quarts of chowder from Legal. The most likely result of the series is 3-2 in one direction or the other, and even that represents a two-game swing. The Yankees might have settled for a 2-3 trip, but the losses to the Orioles at home this week chopped their three-game cushion in half.
As important as the series itself is, how the teams come out of it could be even more critical. Both head to the West Coast immediately after Monday's game; the teams will trade off the Mariners and Angels next week. The Sox then tack on a trip to Oakland, while the Yankees come home to face the Tigers and Twins. After yesterday's respite, the Red Sox won't have a day off again until September 7. A day/night doubleheader today with the world watching will get everyone's attention, but the two brutal weeks that follow Monday's game will probably dictate the final order of finish in the AL East.
As tiring as Yankees/Red Sox hype is, this series may deserve it. It's a late-summer, five-games-in-four-days marathon between good, albeit flawed teams, only one of which is likely to reach the postseason. Three of the games will be played in the daytime in one of the game's classic settings. Tune out the ear-splitting din and tune into the baseball, because this one should live up to the billing.