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The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox close out the first half of the 2012 season by playing one another for a four-game series in the cozy confines of Fenway Park. The teams face off on Friday night at 7:10pm before playing a double-header on Saturday and the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game.
To preview the series between the bitter rivals, Sports of New York’s Eddie Gutleber and Sports of Boston’s Nick Bohlen squared off as well to answer five questions in previewing the two teams’ final games before the All-Star break. “Break” being more the operative word for the Red Sox (who have only one representative at the All-Star Game this year) than the Yankees (who will send four players to the Mid-Summer Classic).
SoNY: I know (or I think, to be politically correct) I speak for most Yankee fans when I say this is not the same Red Sox team the Yankees have grown accustomed to taking the field against over the past handful of seasons. It’s hard to fathom their bitter rivals no longer have the likes of Terry Francona, Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield. On top of that, it appears the only real familiar foe to the Yankees – Dustin Pedroia (thumb) – is headed for the disabled list (joining Jacoby Ellsbury, arguably Boston’s best player). Up to this point, the Sox season has been utterly disappointing. Injuries have hurt them badly, but what has been even more inconceivable is how inconsistent some of their key regulars have been (Adrian Gonzalez and Jon Lester, I’m looking at you). Meanwhile, Bobby Valentine and GM Ben Cherington are still just treading water, trying to get the organization back on track. It is hard to believe that it has been a calendar year since the Sox have actually played up to their potential. But the truth is, even at 42-40 and 7.5 games back of the division-leading Yankees, the fourth place Red Sox might be closer in the standings than they appear. If they were to all of a sudden turn over that evasive new leaf, and play more consistently, they can definitely get back into the thick of the AL playoff hunt.
SoB: Wait, did a Yankee fan just make me almost hopeful about the Red Sox? Among Red Sox Nation, the perception of the New York Yankees seems to be that of a team just as flawed and vulnerable as the Red Sox. Okay, maybe not as bad as all that, but they do have chinks in their armor that shouldn’t let them run away with the AL East. They rely excessively on the home run (including miracle seasons from Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano), and their pitching is mediocre at best. (What is that you’re saying about stones and glass houses? I can’t hear you over the roar of the engines of John Henry’s yacht.) Fine, so they still have the best winning percentage in all of baseball and I all but expect them to win the division one way or another. I do think they’re making another early postseason exit, though, and I’ll just have to take solace in that.
SoNY: I believe they will, and I think that will make this an enticing four-game series. David Ortiz is the only real long-ball threat/masher in their lineup right now, but -Gonzalez is still likely to be the primary focus of the Yankees pitching staff. Despite a down year, he’s still considered one of the game’s best pure hitters with a swing seemingly made for Fenway Park. Will Middlebrooks has already shown some impressive power potential in the two months since his call-up. He’s recovering from a hamstring flare-up, but should be okay in time to get his first taste of what is still the best rivalry in sports.
SoB: After putting up a measly 14 runs in seven games out west, they certainly better. Considering they hit nearly 25 points higher at home than on the road (.278 BA at Fenway Park versus .253 elsewhere), and slug nearly 70 points better with the Green Monster at hand (.472 versus .407), one would hope the Red Sox are returning home following the 4th of July to restart the offensive fireworks. This is the #2 offense in the league, after all, having scored 411 runs. Of course, they’re still a middling 21-21 at Fenway even with all that extra home-cooked firepower, so who knows.
SoNY: They can, but it won’t be easy. Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes have been on quite a roll since the start of June, and will look to continue that trend despite going against a tougher lineup in a hitter-friendly ballpark. By the way, the Red Sox have not had much trouble historically against Hughes. Ivan Nova has also pitched well of late, while the crafty veteran Freddy Garcia will be pitching for a vacant rotation spot while Andy Pettitte is on the mend. Boston will counter with Josh Beckett, Franklin Morales, Felix Doubront and Jon Lester in the four-game set.
SoB: I certainly hope not. Even if Kuroda has all of a sudden turned into the mythical Japanese pitcher everyone has been looking for (take note, Dice-K), trotting out Hughes, Garcia, and Nova for the final three games isn’t exactly a murderer’s row. Hughes and Nova are both in the top ten in the league for home runs allowed; Garcia is only left off that list thanks to being demoted for long relief mop-up duty out of the bullpen. In other words, between being at home and facing a steady diet of meatballs, the Red Sox offense should be resuscitated enough to bang out some wins. At least as long as the Bronx Bombers don’t pound out 15 straight runs to complete a comeback from a nine-run deficit.
SoNY: I think a difference maker is going to come down to the backstops for both squads. Even though they most likely won’t start all four games, they’ll still be crucial components in the lineup and obviously handling their pitching staffs. Coming off of perhaps his worst stretch of games this past week for New York, Russell Martin has had a dreadful season offensively and has even begun to struggle defensively. A four-game set in enemy territory could prove to be the necessary fire lit under his backside to get him going. For Boston, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has come a long way (almost as long as his last name) since he first joined the Red Sox. Now, he’s fully enshrined as the everyday catcher and he’s been an unsung hero for them, both at the dish as well as behind it. If the Sox are able to win the series, I expect Salty will be a big reason why.
SoB: It has to be Ortiz, as obvious as that may be. As if his overall numbers aren’t reason enough, he’ll get to face four straight righties, against which Ortiz has an otherworldly OPS of 1.016 and 13 of his 22 home runs. If you push me to pick someone subtler, I would say the left-handed starters for the Red Sox, Morales and Doubront. If those two can outduel Hughes and Garcia (as they should), the Red Sox have a good chance of making up some ground before the All-Star break. My super dark-horse sleeper pick? Darnell McDonald, just picked up off of waivers by the Yankees after the Red Sox released him! Maybe his insider knowledge can help him improve on his season line of .214/.309/.369.
SoNY: This one is a no-brainer to me: the Red Sox. The Sox can’t afford to lose this series for the sake of the standings (they’d be 9.5 games back in the division if they lose three of four, 11.5 if they get swept) and their psyche. They need to win this series or at least split if they envision a second-half surge that would be a polar opposite of 2011.
SoB: I was originally going to say the Yankees, who looked like they might be under more pressure coming into Boston with a struggling, injury-riddled Red Sox roster still inexplicably within striking distance. But that was before the Red Sox got swept by the Oakland Athletics during a lowly 2-5 west coast road swing. Now Boston is essentially in a must-win situation; lose two or four games in the standings to the Yankees, and it would take some sort of divine intervention or unexpected hot streak from Adrian Gonzalez (I guess that would be the same thing, really) to keep the Red Sox in contention.