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Possibly 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?

Lineups

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.

Bench

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.

Starters

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.

Bullpen

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.

Defense

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.

Overall

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.