Monday, April 27, 2009

Lessons from the first Boston-New York series of the 2009 season

There are going to be five more series between the Red Sox and Yankees this year. That’s 15 more games to dissect, analyze and pontificate on. Meanwhile, they’ll spend their other days and nights playing everyone else, but this matchup is still called the most emotional in sports. Whether that’s true or not, it’s clearly not the same as TorontoTexas or San DiegoMilwaukee. Even with a small sample size in mid April, the three games gave us plenty to chew on, and at this nascent stage of the season, some clear lessons:

1) The Red Sox are getting younger, while the Yankees are getting much older.

  • Sunday night’s stars for the Red Sox were Justin Masterson (24 years old), Jacoby Ellsbury (25) and Michael Bowden (22). The Yankees were hanging their hopes of avoiding a humiliating sweep on the 37 year old frame of Andy Pettitte. The equation won’t always work out so marvelously for Boston, but the difference was dramatically illustrated when the kid Ellsbury stunned the old men Posada and Pettitte by brashly stealing home on national television. Sure, it was just one run, but the Yankees never got that run back, and the symbolism was impossible to deny or escape.
  • There’s a bit of talent in the Yankee farm system, but not much. If there had been, they wouldn’t have had to throw the hundreds of millions of dollars they did at AJ Burnett after promising CC Sabathia the GDP of a medium-sized foreign country. In any case, right now there is no heir apparent for Mariano Rivera. He's going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, but his impressive career is much closer to the end than anyone in New York wants to admit.
  • Injuries happen. Losing ARod isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, but for Joe Girardi it’s created a black hole, both defensively and offensively. When Julio Lugo and then Jed Lowrie went down, Boston had options. Former Yankee Nick Green has worked out great, and Lugo’s been reactivated for the Cleveland series as the backup shortstop. With Chien Ming Wang out, the Yankees are badly weakened. When Daisuke Matsuzaka went down after being overworked in the World Baseball Classic, the Red Sox simply moved Justin Masterson into the rotation. No muss, no fuss. Life goes on. This brings us to:

2) The Red Sox have deep pitching. The Yankees have an unsteady rotation and no bullpen.

  • As of Monday morning, the Red Sox bullpen has the best ERA in the majors. They’ve performed exactly as designed, adjusting to the assigned tasks and creating effective bridges to Jonathan Papelbon and Takashi Saito. Ramon Ramirez, who was picked up from Kansas City in exchange for Coco Crisp, hasn’t allowed an earned run yet. Neither has local boy Manny Delcarmen. Pap is perfect in save opportunities. Even when Josh Beckett and Brad Penny don’t have it, they get picked up, and give the offense a chance to right the ship. Example 1: April 17, Penny gave the O’s a 7-0 lead. Red Sox win 10-8. Example 2: April 26, Beckett gave the Yankees a 6-0 lead. Red Sox win a 16-11 shootout.
  • The same can’t be said for Mariano Rivera and the collection of spare parts that Joe Girardi has to dread calling for when his starter tires or can’t get out of the first or second inning. Piling up 10 or more runs on the Yankees isn’t news anymore, it’s de rigeur. A week ago, everyone was stunned to hear that the Indians had opened up a can of whupass on the Yankees at the Stadium, and the common perception was that the new Boogie Down was a launching pad. Turns out there’s a simpler explanation: Yankee pitching sucks. As of right now, the only difference between them and the Baltimore Orioles’ staff is that nobody is paying more than $2,600 a night to watch the O’s stink. Then again, judging by the camera shots from the opening days of the House That Jonathan Albaladejo Built, maybe even that difference can be thrown away. New York has the worst bullpen in baseball, period. They’re starting to resemble the old Tampa Bay Devil Rays: get into their bullpen and you win the game.

3) Ninety percent of baseball is mental. The other half is physical.

  • Though it may be considered dirty pool to use a classic Yankee’s quote against the Bombers, here are the major events of the weekend:
    • Friday: your Hall of Fame closer blows a save, then the bullpen blows the game.
    • Saturday: your #2 ace can’t hold a 6 run lead, and once again the bullpen is helpless, getting blown out in a slugfest.
    • Sunday: you’re shown up on national television: a steal of home with the bases loaded.

Given those three examples, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to suggest this isn’t entirely a physical thing. Baseball is about mental toughness as much as physical gifts (which has a lot to do with Dustin Pedroia’s and Jon Lester’s successes). In showdowns with the Red Sox, the Yankees haven’t had the upper hand since Dave Roberts swiped second base and subsequently scored in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. Since then, Boston has taken up permanent residence inside the Yankees’ collective heads. Nobody outside of local talk radio blowhards could seriously argue the Red Sox have more talent than the Yankees. When he’s healthy (as he is now), AJ Burnett has perhaps the best pure stuff of anyone in the game today, but as Red Sox radio announcer Dave O’Brien said, Burnett loses focus all too often, and even seems to grow bored at times. That may well be what happened, I don’t know. What I do know is you shouldn’t blow a 6 run lead in the major leagues in scarcely two innings. I know it’s only April. I know the Yankees have stunk in April before, only to roar back and contend in September. That could still happen this year, but for it to take place the team would need to grow a pair and find some leadership and a center of gravity.

If they don’t, the Red Sox and Rays will own the division, and the $200 million payroll and $2,600 VIP seats will be generating more anger in New York than Wall Street CEO salaries.

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