Baseball’s version of a holy war-at least in the Northeast corridor-returns for the first time in nearly two months on Thursday night when the Yankees host the Red Sox in the opener of a four-game series. The arch rivals are jockeying for the top spot in the American League East as the Yankees hold a 1½-game lead over the Red Sox. However, the Red Sox have dominated the season series in 2009 by winning all eight meetings to date, though just two of those games have been at the new Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees say that their 0-8 mark against the Red Sox matters little, and it’s understandable that they feel that way. The Yankees were 34-26 after getting swept in a three-game series at Fenway Park that ended June 11. Since then, they have gone 30-16 to raise their record to 64-42. “It doesn’t make a difference what we did against Boston,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. “You can’t change it. It’s over with. It’s not like we were worrying about it. The only time we worry about Boston is when we’re playing them.”
The Red Sox should be worried about playing the Yankees, though. The Yankees rank second in the major leagues with an average of 5.5 runs scored a game, and none of their regulars has an EqA below .278. Despite missing the first 28 games of the season while recovering from hip surgery, third baseman Alex Rodriguez and first baseman Mark Teixeira lead the way with .309 marks, followed by Jeter (.299), left fielder Johnny Damon (.295), designated hitter Hideki Matsui (.292), right fielder Nick Swisher (.291), catcher Jorge Posada (.288), center fielder Melky Cabrera (.281), and second baseman Robinson Cano (.274).
“Alex is being Alex,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “We have a lot of good hitters but he is the guy our offense really revolves around. When he’s hitting, it seems that it makes everybody else in the lineup that much better.”
The Yankees’ weakness is pitching, as they are 21st in the majors in runs allowed with a 4.9 average. The starting rotation has been solid though unspectacular, with off-season free-agent signees CC Sabathia (3.3) and A.J. Burnett (3.2) providing a fine lefty-right tandem up front. Left-hander Andy Pettitte (2.6) and right-hander Joba Chamberlain (2.4) have also been solid, but the fifth spot has been a sinkhole, and may not improve now that Chien-Ming Wang will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Over in the pen, closer Mariano Rivera continues to be a premier reliever with an outstanding 4.332 WXRL. Converted starters Phil Hughes (1.697) and Alfredo Aceves (1.313) have been solid as right-handed set-up men, and rookie Phil Coke (1.358) has done fine as the primary left-hander. However, the falloff is steep beyond those four.
Regardless, the Yankees have a feeling this is their year to get back to the World Series and win it. Despite perennially having the highest payroll in the majors, the Yankees haven’t been to the Fall Classic since 2003, and they haven’t won it since 2000. “We like our team and we like our chances,” Damon said. “I think we have a good enough team, though I know there are a lot of factors that have to go our way.”
It certainly seems many of those factors have been breaking in the Yankees’ favor through the first two-thirds of the season. Their nine walk-off victories are as many as they had last season, when they failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time since the players’ strike wiped out the 1994 playoffs, and their nine triumphs after trailing by three runs or less also match their total of 2008.
“There’s definitely a never-say-die attitude about this team,” Damon said. “We’d much rather blow a team out and make it easy, but that doesn’t seem to be in our repertoire.” Teixeria, another major free-agent signing last winter, believes the Yankees are saving their top performances for a strong finishing kick. “We still haven’t played our best ball,” he said. “The great thing about this team is we have improvement to makes and we’re all trying to get better as a team.”
After failing to make the playoffs last season, the Yankees are embracing an underdog role, even if is mostly self-styled. “We’re just trying to prove that we’re somebody,” general manager Brian Cashman said.
The Rangers decided to stand pat at the non-waiver trading deadline last weekend after reportedly being led to believe Blue Jays right-hander Roy Halladay would accept a trade to Texas, only to then be told otherwise. While manager Ron Washington said that the Rangers would make a move and the players were hoping they would get help in their attempt to catch the Angels in the American League West, GM Jon Daniels ultimately decided not to decimate his organization’s deep farm system “I know our guys wanted to see us make a move and, frankly, so did I,” Daniels told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s Gil LeBreton.
However, the Rangers hung on to rookie left-hander Derek Holland, rookie right-hander Neftali Felix, and first-base prospect Justin Smoak. “Our inner circle met and talked about the various prospects in our system and who we would consider trading,” Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine told Sirius XM’s Joe Castellano. “The more we talked about them, the more exhilarating it became because of all the young talent we’ve been able to accumulate. We feel we’re in position to be success for many years to come.”
Holding on to the young talent was likely the right move since the Rangers are 4½ games behind the Angels in the division race and three behind the Red Sox in the wild-card standings, making a playoff appearance more probable in 2010 than 2009. However, Daniels also understands at some point he may have to trade some of the young talent to increase the major league club’s pennant hopes. “Ultimately, you don’t win any prizes for having the best farm system,” Daniels said. “We know that. It’s there to supplement your big-league club.”
Twins GM Bill Smith seemingly answered his critics at the trading deadline by making a deal for Athletics shortstop Orlando Cabrera. In the days leading up to the deadline, such key veterans as closer Joe Nathan, catcher Joe Mauer, and first baseman Justin Morneau questioned the organization’s commitment to winning because the Twins rarely seem to add an impact player for the stretch drive, outfielder Shannon Stewart in 2003 being remembered as a rare exception.
Smith, though, did not gloat after strengthening a weak middle infield. He also told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune‘s Patrick Reusse that he did not resent the players questioning his ability to make a big acquisition. “It doesn’t bother me when it is players such as Mauer, Morneau, and Nathan, or if it were a Mike Redmond or a Michael Cuddyer, veterans whose motivation is they want to win,” Smith said. “(Former Twins GM and current special advisor) Terry Ryan said it a couple of years ago: ‘There’s a freedom of speech in this organization.’ That hasn’t changed.”
What has changed for the Twins since Smith was promoted from assistant GM to replace Ryan (who wanted a lesser role) after the 2007 season is that their front office now forms a consensus in making personnel decisions. Smith readily admits he is more of an administrator, while Ryan was more of a talent evaluator. Smith, Ryan, vice president for player personnel Mike Radcliff, pro scouting coordinator Vern Followell, and assistant GM Rob Antony all have a say in shaping the roster.
“There are many more pieces now,” Smith said. “There are more places than ever to look for players. We’ve added Vern to the pro side. We have three full-time major league scouts rather than two. We have four (amateur) supervisors instead of three. I have no doubt about the quality of the evaluators in this organization, no doubt at all.”
Three of baseball’s five all-time winningest managers are active, as the Cardinals‘ Tony La Russa is third, the Braves‘ Bobby Cox stands fourth, and the Dodgers‘ Joe Torre is fifth. La Russa has great admiration for Torre as a manager, and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Rick Hummel why he feels that way. “You’re talking about a supposedly calm exterior even though he’s really churning inside,” La Russa said. “I think it’s a good message to send to his team.”
Unlike most managers, Torre had a very successful playing career. He hit .297/.365/.452 with 252 home runs in 18 seasons with the Braves (1960-68), Cardinals (1969-74), and Mets (1975-77) while playing at least 500 games at catcher, first, and third base. La Russa, on the other hand, hit .199/.292/.250 in six seasons as a utility infielder with the Athletics (1963, 1968-71), Braves (1971), and Cubs (1973). Cox hit just .225/.310/.309 in less than two full seasons for the Yankees in 1968-69.
Reflecting on Torre’s career, La Russa observes, “He has the best preparation you would want, because as a catcher you understand the pitching and then you also have some schooling as an offensive player.” In contrast, La Russa said, “What am I going to say to a hitter? ‘Good luck’? ‘Go get ’em’?”
Scouts’ views on various major league players:
- Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn: “I shudder to think how many errors he might make at first base between now and the end of the season. That being said, he can still hit the ball as far as anyone in the game, and that’s why he is in the lineup.”
- Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday: “Think Larry Walker in 2004 and that’s what he is doing for the Cardinals this year as a mid-season acquisition. He looks interested in playing again, which you couldn’t say about him in Oakland before the trade.”
- Yankees right-hander Sergio Mitre: “He looks very timid and he’s not attacking the strike zone. The Yankees can’t afford to mess around in a pennant race, which is why I can’t believe they didn’t make some kind of trade at the deadline for a starter.”
- Mets outfielder Angel Pagan: “He’s been a godsend for the Mets in the leadoff spot, but I just don’t see him being any kind of long-term solution. He’s a bench player, nothing more and nothing less.”
- Giants shortstop Edgar Renteria: “He’s going to try to gut it out the rest of the season with his sore elbow, but I don’t think it’s going to help. He isn’t the driving the ball and he isn’t very good in the field anymore. He’s a declining player and it’s baffling why the Giants gave him $18 million (for two years) in such a soft market last winter.”
- Rockies left fielder Seth Smith: “He has been an unsung hero for that club. I always thought he was a fourth outfielder, but now I think I underestimated him. He has some pop and he’ll take a walk. He’s a good player.”
- Pirates second baseman Delwyn Young: “He can really swing the bat and I think he will be productive now that he’s getting a chance to play every day. However, he might get killed at second on a double play because he’s so slow on the pivot.”
Three series to watch this weekend with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):
Red Sox at Yankees, Thursday-Sunday (August 6-9)
John Smoltz vs. Joba Chamberlain, 7:05 p.m. (MLB Network); Josh Beckett vs. A.J. Burnett, 7:05 p.m.; Clay Buchholz vs. CC Sabathia, 4:10 p.m. (Fox); Jon Lester vs. Andy Pettitte, 8:05 p.m. (ESPN).
Cubs at Rockies, Friday-Monday (August 7-10)
Carlos Zambrano vs. Ubaldo Jimenez, 9:10 p.m.; Ryan Dempster vs. Jason Marquis, 8:10 p.m. (MLB Network); Randy Wells vs. Jason Hammel, 3:10 p.m.; Tom Gorzelanny vs. Jorge De La Rosa, 8:40 p.m.