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Pitching will Dominate Sox – Yanks Weekend Tilt at the Fens

Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez Have Words (Brita Meng Outzen/Boston Red Sox)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood? No, no. The Country Mouse and the City Mouse? Scratch that. Paula Abdul and that dancing cat in the “Opposites Attract” video? Lame, I know, but you get the point.

The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are two teams going in entirely different directions and both will be thrown into the gloaming this weekend at Fenway Park for a three game baseball soiree that could either confirm the validity of the early seasons signs of mediocrity from the Red Sox or catapult them into a stretch where they fully manifest their baseball capabilities.

The Red Sox and their fans need to put aside thoughts of rivalries. This is merely another series for the cold, efficient, mercenary Yankees whereas it is gut check time for the Red Sox, regardless of who they are playing.

The Yankees always seem to come around at a time when Red Sox guts need to be checked and this early May series could prove quite a rubicon.

Pre-Series Analysis

Will this series mimic the infamous five game sweep at the hands of the Yankees back in late 2006? A series that all but crushed a boot heel into the throat of the Red Sox season? Or will this series propel the Red Sox to AL East prosperity along the lines of the 8-0 start they got off to against the Yankees in 2009?

The style in which these teams have played out of the gate, it looks like the former verily.

Simply put, the Yankees have dropped one series all year.  One. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of the State of California of the United States of America of Planet Earth of the Milky Way were somehow able to take two of three at home from the Yankees.

Of course, the Red Sox are in the midst of pounding said Angels into submission at Fenway and will gunning for the elusive four game sweep tonight. So, the Angels beat the Yankees, and the Red Sox beat the Angels, so the Red Sox should beat the Yankees, right?

If only it were that easy.

Remember, this Red Sox team recently got swept by the Baltimore Orioles, a team whose existence the past seven years or so has been merely to serve as a fodder for the class of the AL East to fatten up on, in embarrassing fashion.

As always in baseball, the quality of pitching will determine the outcome of this series, and that is what we will focus on. Plus, that is what Theo touted all offseason, right? Run prevention?

It seems as if the boys and Theo got their wires crossed, though. Maybe Theo Epstein didn’t explain it quite well enough to the players. Prevent the other team from scoring runs, but you Red Sox can score all you like. By all means, please do.

So, let’s get our hands dirty and break this series down game by game, matchup by matchup, Will McDonough style. Anyone remember Will McDonough? Boston Globe writer? NFL on NBC stalwart? First print guy to make the leap to television? Dubbed Roger Clemens the “Texas Con Man”? Anyone? Crickets.

Game One  -  Friday @ 7:10

Josh Beckett (1-0) 6.31  vs.  Phil Hughes (3-0) 1.44

How in the world is Phil Hughes allowing 4.87 runs less than Josh Beckett per nine innings? The discrepancy is Grand Canyonesque and the rift is equal parts outstanding pitching by Hughes and meatball lobbing by Beckett.

I’m just glad the Yankees couldn’t decide between Hughes and Joba Chamberlain as starters over the past couple of years. Ostensibly, the Yankees could have had a seamless baton passing at closer from Mariano Rivera to Chamberlain but had to get cute and mess up his arm. Thanks, Brian Cashman!

Hughes is coming off a scintillating seven inning, one walk, six strikeout performance against the Chicago White Sox in which he allowed no runs. He has yielded but four earned runs all year.

Beckett allowed five earned runs in his first start of the season, and it must have been a pleasurable experience for him, as he continued on his path of anti-run prevention.

After seven innings of aberration pitching against the Toronto Blue Jays in which he allowed no earned runs, Beckett gave up a seven spot against the Texas Rangers, and then let the Toronto Blue Jays hang eight runs on him in a mere three innings.

This does not bode well for game one of this series, especially when taking into account the unceremonious way in which a number of current Yankees have disposed of Beckett’s offerings.

As currently constituted, as Dale Arnold would say, the Red Sox lineup does not have a long and storied history against young Master Hughes. Dustin Pedroia is the most familiar with him, having nine plate appearances, and he remains hitless in all of them. The only Red Sox player that jumps out is the lamentable J.D. Drew, who has managed a triple and four walks in seven trips to the plate. Not a lot to sink your teeth into.

In contrast, the Yankees have 308 plate appearances against Beckett in their back pocket. The Yankees are a superb fastball hitting team, and everything Beckett does is based off his fastball. Its power versus power and the bats have been winning.

However, with Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixiera already struggling this year, Josh Beckett may be the last pitcher they want to see. Sporting career OPS’ of .790 and .416 (that’s correct, .416) respectively against Beckett, this could further their funks.

Scoring 17 runs on Monday night, the Red Sox bats seemed to wake up a bit but, unfortunately, the Yankees have no Joe Saunders in their rotation. Well they do, Javier Vasquez, but we will not be seeing him this weekend unfortunately.

This game could get ugly for the Red Sox and set an ominous tone for the weekend. I especially see Robinson Cano, given how white hot he has been lately, doing some major damage against Beckett

Prediction:

Yankees – 9

Red Sox -  3

Game Two  -  Saturday @ 3:10

Clay Buchholz (3-2) 2.97  vs.  C.C. Sabathia (4-1) 2.74

Now we should be in for some pitching fireworks. And when you get down to the nut of it, that is what makes baseball exciting. Baseball is a game unlike any other, and in our quick fix, crack generation society games predicated on defensive (read: pitching) dominance just don’t cut the proverbial mustard.

Soccer? Wildly unpopular in the USA.  Put it on ice, give the players sticks and let them fight and now we have a sport America can get behind. Think about the other three major sports. In basketball you need to have the ball to score. In football, a team must gain possession of the ball before points can be accumulated. In hockey, you need the puck to pot one.

Baseball? The defense is in control, has the ball and dictates the flow and pace of the game. It is up to the offense to react quickly enough to then make the defense react to it. It’s a different paradigm and this schism between the natures of baseball versus the three other major sports pretty much sums up the steroid era.

America still loved baseball. Loved the tradition, the heritage and the history, but MLB and Bud Selig allowed the game’s will to be bent to the whims of the fans, who are the paying customers, I guess, but I digress.

This will be some old tyme, low scoring, fastball locating baseball. With apologies to John Henry and his facelifts, C.C. Sabathia basically owns the Red Sox (playoff blowups with the Cleveland Indians notwithstanding). This Red Sox roster has posted a career OPS of .667 versus the portly southpaw. Ouch.

Clay Buchholz, oddly enough, has corralled the Yankees lineup to an identical .667 OPS, albeit the number of plate appearances we are dealing with here is greatly skewed toward Sabathia, 211 to 43.

With a forecast of 61 degrees and low humidity, the conditions should prove ideal for these two fireballers to do their do. Runs will be at a premium.

Buchholz, while off to a great start this season, turned in an uneven performance against the Angels in his last start but was given seven runs in the first four innings. But will he get any support this game?

Boston’s most consistent hitter against Sabathia, Kevin Youkilis, is battling a minor groin strain and Adrian Beltre, maybe the Sox most dangerous hitter of late having raised his slugging percentage over 130 points in the last ten games, has had almost literally no success against Sabathia. Check this line:  .071/.125/.143.

That is uber-underwhelming.

Add in the fact that the late Saturday afternoon, six beer malaise will cast a pall over the Fenway faithful and their leather lunged louts, and we could be in for an efficient, quiet little game here.

Steve Buckley will be so happy.  He’ll think he’s at one of his old tyme games in Cambridge.  Maybe we’ll retire Tony C’s number as well so Buck can die in peace.

Final Prediction:

Yankees – 3

Red Sox -  4

Game Three  -  Sunday @ 8:05

John Lester (2-2) 3.93  vs.  A.J. Burnett (4-0) 1.99

Don’t look now, but the man with the million dollar arm and ten cent head has quietly put it all together this year. No, I’m not talking about Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, but rather his real life doppelganger:  A.J. Burnett.

Burnett hasn’t surrendered a run in three of his last four starts. He is leading the Yankees, a team with a 3.45 cumulative ERA, in that category (Hughes ERA is technically lower but he doesn’t currently have the requisite number of innings to qualify for league leaders). His current WHIP of 1.16 would be a career best.

Will the unblinking eye and burning spotlight of the ESPN cameras jostle Burnett off his perch of dominance? In past years I couldn’t have answered “yes” to that question fast enough. Now? Not so much.

After spending a year under the wing of Roy Halladay and then winning a ring the following year with the Yankees this late bloomer has, well, bloomed.

Wunderkind John Lester, who was forced to be wise and mature beyond his years while battling to come back from cancer, has rebounded very nicely after a shaky start.

Seeing his ERA balloon to 8.44 after being manhandled by the Tampa Bay Rays on April 18th, Lester has permitted the opposition to score but once in his last three outings spanning 20 2/3 innings.

In a nutshell, these two hurlers have been their respective team’s best starters as of late.

In lieu of this “new” Burnett, the perceptions gleaned from past performances of the Red Sox batsmen while facing Burnett may prove dubious. However, if past performance is an indicator the Red Sox best hope in this game is the, gulp, struggling Victor Martinez.

Martinez’ career OPS of 1.079 versus Burnett jumps out like a kangaroo on greenies, but keep in mind this is a man who, aside from Thursday, hasn’t homered since the second game of the season. The pitcher he first took over the bridge? A.J. Burnett.

Now I’m confused.

With Pedroia sporting a healthy .459 OBP against Burnett it will of paramount importance for him to get on base in front of Martinez. This tandem represents the Red Sox’ best chance to score against Burnett. Here’s hoping Terry Francona heeds this advice and bats them second and third in the order.

With the Rodriguez-Teixeira struggles taking place in the middle of the Yankees order, and the fact that the Yankees don’t hit Lester well as a team, the bullpens will have quite a bit of say in this game.

If Lester can get through the sixth inning:  Advantage Red Sox.  Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon have been doing some great late inning work lately.  Even Manny Delcarmen has shown signs of settling down, although the 10th inning, game winning RBI single he gave up to Miguel Tejada in Baltimore was a step back.

If the Red Sox need to go deeper into the ‘pen, that spells trouble.  Hideki Okajima has been all but useless this year. Even lefties are lighting him up at a clip of .357, which I suppose is better than the .364 righties are touching him for.

Don’t even get me started on Scott Schoenweis, Ramon Ramirez or Scott Atchison.  If we see any of this trio in this, or any other game, that means bad, bad things are happening.

The Yankees are in the same proverbial boat.  No worries in the late innings, with the forever young Mariano Rivera (he is to the Yankees what Richard Alpert is to the “Lost” island) and a stabilizing Chamberlain.  Damaso Marte is even giving the Yankees quality out of the pen, holding batters to a .227 average.

This will be the most exciting game of the series and I believe it will be decided in the late innings, long after Lester and Burnett have showered, and will make Boston and New York fans alike salivate for their next series, a two game mini-series in New York May 17-18.

Prediction:

Yankees – 4

Red Sox -  5

Conclusions

This series could serve as ballast for the rest of the Red Sox season. Momentum is on their side after dismissing the Angles. Then again, the Yankees have had Uncle Mo [and Chamberlain, just in case] on their side all year.

This series is more important for the Red Sox. They will play with the desperation of a team tying to mold itself into the winner they believe they are.

The Yankees? This is just another business trip for them, but one that will not end well.  The Red Sox will take two of three in this series.  Book it.

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