I usually don’t single out certain series but given the passion of the rivalry, and the fact that I got out of class at noon today, I thought, why not? Well I’ll skip the small chat and get right down to business. This weekend the two powers of the AL East will go head to head in some of the most interesting games in sports. The Red Sox at 9-5 are in first place, although they are only a single game ahead of the Yankees at 8-6. Both teams have been playing hot of late, both coming in on winning streaks and both having swept a team in one of their last two series. While the Yankees may be suffering some injuries, don’t fool yourself, they’re still the New York Yankees. Even if their starting rotation is depleted they still have an All-Star at practically every position and the best closer in the history of the game (there’s absolutely no question in my mind on that one). Another important factor is where this game will be played, Fenway Park. The Yankees this season are 3-3 on the road while the Red Sox are 4-1 at Fenway where they’ve compiled a record of 157-86 (.646) over the last 3 years. Since every game begins, and is often decided by virtue of the starting pitching, I’ll begin by taking a look at the match ups.
Friday, April 20th – Andy Pettitte (1-0, 1.50 ERA) vs. Curt Schilling (2-1, 2.84 ERA)
Andy Pettitte has looked good since before the season even began. He comes into this game with a lifetime 13-5 record and a 3.01 ERA against the Red Sox. While that may be indicative of how Pettitte pitches in such pressure situations, it is in no way indicative of how he pitches against the current Red Sox hitters. Pettitte hasn’t pitched in the American League since 2003 and even then, he only pitched a single game against the Red Sox. While he may have good numbers against the Red Sox, he doesn’t have good numbers against these Red Sox. Quite a lot has changed since Pettitte left the Yankees and the match ups don’t look all that promising for him anymore. With the exception of Eric Hinske, every single member of the current Red Sox with at least 5 at bats against Pettitte has a lifetime average of at least .360 against him. Lugo, Ortiz, Ramirez and Pena have all batted better than .400 against Pettitte.
Curt Schilling comes into this game having pitched well in each of his last two starts. Over his career he is 7-5 with a 4.44 ERA against the Yankees. At Fenway Park however, Schilling is 26-8 with a 3.89 ERA. It’s truly rare that he loses a game within the friendly confines. It may help to have Matsui out of the Yankees lineup as he hits .333/.417/.429 against Schilling (21 AB). On the other hand, Melky Cabrera has hit only .100/.182/.200 against Schilling in 10 AB. Given how familiar the Yankees hitters are with Schilling, I expect to see more changeups than usual from the veteran. This pitch for him is still a work in progress and while I’ve seen it fool some hitters so far, it’s also been hit really hard a few times. Like Pettitte, Schilling is a guy with a reputation for doing well in big games. I expect this to be a well pitched game from the starters and have a hard time giving either one much of an advantage.
Saturday, April 21st – Jeff Karstens (0-0, -.–) vs. Josh Beckett (3-0 1.50 ERA)
Jeff Karstens will be coming back off the DL to pitch in his first game of the season. Karstens is 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA in 8 career major league games. Not only will this be his first game of the season but it will be his first start in any game of importance. Generally, two things happen in starts such as these. First of all, the young pitcher is usually wild. I think it’s safe to expect some walks and missed locations. Often times however, young starters also have an advantage as the hitters they’re pitching against have never faced them before. Given that this is a Yankees/Red Sox game however, I expect the Red Sox hitters to have been given rather comprehensive scouting reports on Karstens. It should be rather obvious just how effective the scouting is by the 3rd or 4th inning of the game.
Lifetime against the Yankees, Josh Beckett is 2-2 with a 9.45 ERA (in the regular season) but I don’t think anyone expects such results out of him in this series. Not only does Beckett pitch much better at Fenway where he’s 19-9 with a 4.48 ERA but as I explained earlier, he’s simply not the same pitcher that he was last year. This will be the largest test of the season for Beckett. However, given how well he’s been pitching it would be silly not to expect at least a decent start. Even early last season Beckett pitched well against the Yankees. This will be his 4th start of this season but in his 7th start of last season Beckett went 7 innings against the Yankees allowing 3 runs, 6 hits and 0 walks while he struck out 7.
Sunday, April 22nd – Chase Wright (1-0, 5.40 ERA) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-2, 2.70 ERA)
Wright could make this game very ugly. He was visibly nervous making the leap from AA to the majors only last Tuesday. He allowed 5 hits and 3 walks in his 5 innings of work and pitching in Fenway Park against the Red Sox isn’t going to be any more calming on his nerves. On the other hand, the rookie effect could allow Wright to keep the Yankees in the game. While the Red Sox will have a little tape to look at, how Wright performed in his major league debut may not be anything like how he performs Sunday. Wright’s a guy without spectacular stuff so even if he doesn’t walk anyone, there’s a good chance the Red Sox will hit him pretty well regardless.
This is the moment that we’ve all been waiting for since we heard rumors of a possible $20-30 million bid by the Red Sox. There could be no better regular season test for the Japanese phenom. Not only will he be facing the best lineup in the majors but he will be doing so in the midst of the largest rivalry in American sports, while the Yankees are hitting red hot. Given that Matsuzaka is one of the major league leaders in strikeouts, it’s safe to expect plenty, even against the Yankees. There may however be some deeply hit balls as well. Matsuzaka is not accustomed to the power of major league hitters. Fortunately for him, he’ll be pitching in Fenway which strangely enough, is now one of the hardest parks in the majors to hit the ball out of. I also expect to see some walks. Matsuzaka’s style is to tempt hitters to swing at balls just outside of the zone but the Yankees are one of the more patient teams in the game. Matsuzaka is still in the process of learning the major league strike zone as well. It will be interesting to see if Matsuzaka will be able to make the adjustment, like good pitchers do, and keep his walk total down. If the Yankees get some walks followed by home runs, they should be able to stay in this game, regardless of the mis-match of the starters.
Bullpens: While the Red Sox may not have quite the same depth in their bullpen that the Yankees enjoy, their back end of the pen has been much better. In Donnelly and Okajima they have a lefty/righty duo of setup men for one of the most dominant closers in the game. They have been lights out with an ERA around 0.50. Papelbon however will not be available for Friday’s game after pitching in back to back games against the Blue Jays. Could Okajima close against a predominantly lefty lineup?
The Yankees bullpen got off to a hot start but has struggled of late. This could perhaps be due to the immense weight they’ve been placed on them by the ineffectiveness of their starters. While Mariano Rivera is available, the Yankees bullpen is worn out as well. With Rasner only able to go 4.1 innings on Thursday, the Yankees bullpen had to pitch the majority of the game. They absolutely need Pettitte to go 7 innings in Friday’s game since they can’t count on either one of their next two starters for 5 full innings or more.
Offenses: This is where the Yankees have the advantage. The Yankees offense has hit .283/.356/.442 over their first 14 games and against mostly below average teams it has even been good enough to cover up some of their pitching blunders. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, Giambi has finally begun to hit, going yard in yesterday’s game. There’s a good likelihood that A-Rod will be a deciding factor in these series. He’s gotten off to a historically good start, including 2 walk-off home runs, but can he continue to find success under the pressure of a more glaring national spotlight? Yankees fans will be quick to point out that while their pitching has struggles, the season is early. The same must be said about A-Rod. 14 games are rather meaningless in comparison to all the failure he’s experienced as a Yankee.
The Red Sox offense has gotten off to a slow start, actually costing them some games. They are only hitting .249/.331/.395 overall. Because of their spectacular starting though, they have been able to outscore their opponents 68-36. They’ve been hot and cold, scoring a lot in some games and barely getting hits in others. It will be interesting to see which offense shows up this weekend. While Manny Ramirez has gotten off to a slow start, his success will also have quite the effect on the series. Ramirez had a clutch, 8th inning, game-tying home run yesterday. Those who have watched him over the years know that he generally gets off to a slow start but once he gets into one, he can very rapidly transform into one of the hardest outs in the game. If his bat finally comes around it will be a big boost to the Red Sox offense and if it doesn’t, it could hurt them.
Defense: The Yankees defense has really struggled this season, making 15 errors in 14 games. It has even possibly cost them some games as they’ve already allowed 10 unearned runs. Their defensive problems have only been compounded by their starting pitching not being able to pick them up and work around mistakes. Derek Jeter leads the team with 6 errors and even when Jeter’s on he suffers from very limited range up the middle. I expect to see multiple runs go straight through the middle the Yankees defense as Jeter isn’t able to get to them. A-Rod has two errors already but having watched him play, he’s improved drastically on defense. Unless he melts down completely like he did last year, I expect to see him to rob plenty of Red Sox hitters in this series.
The Red Sox defense has made 8 errors in their first 12 games. That number is a bit misleading as 3 of them were made in the same game by gold glove winner Mike Lowell. The pitching was able to pick him up however. The Red Sox defense has only caused 1 unearned run to this point. Yankees fans will get their first good look at Julio Lugo, someone they’ve criticized quite a bit for his defensive ability when the Red Sox acquired him. I think they’ll be surprised. Lugo has spectacular range and has made some dazzling plays so far this season. The addition of Drew also gives the Red Sox one of the best defensive right fielders in the game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sloppy play or two from Pedroia. While he was a clutch hitter in the minors and has been alright so far defensively, the pressure of this series will be unlike anything he’s ever taken part in.