Red Sox-Yanks Renew Rivalry For Fenway’s 100th Anniversary

They’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park this weekend as the New York Yankees come to Boston for a three-game series.  While there are other series that are probably better from a purely baseball standpoint—namely, Texas-Detroit in a rematch of last year’s ALCS, nothing draws TV cameras in this sport like Sawx-Yanks, and it starts with MLB network matinee coverage on Friday afternoon, Fox on Saturday and ESPN on Sunday night. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the early returns for both teams…

NY Yankees (7-6): After being swept in their season-opening series in Tampa, the Yankees have settled down a bit, answering with a sweep of their own in Baltimore and taking 2 of 3 from the Angels, before having to salvage a split of a four-game series at home with Minnesota earlier this week.

The offense is off to a good start, with Derek Jeter positively blazing. The Captain is hitting .389 with four home runs, and his four doubles show he’s also driving the ball into the gaps with consistency. There’s no one else in the lineup who’s a major storyline at either extreme right now. On the plus side, Curtis Granderson unleashed for the first time in 2012 when he hit three home runs against the Twins last night. On the negative, Mark Teixeira hasn’t hit a home run and his batting average is a pedestrian .267. But Teixeira usually starts slow with his power and his patience at the plate is such that his OBP is still up over .350. Speaking of patience at the plate compensating for a lack of hitting, how about catcher Russell Martin? He’s only hitting a buck-48, but having already walked nine times, his OBP is .410. Martin is actually a reasonably productive offense player without actually getting hits. New York as a whole is second in the American League in runs scored, both getting runners on base and hitting the ball for power at solid clips and there’s no reason to think that won’t sustain itself.

Pitching is the problem in the Bronx, where the team is 7th in ERA and could easily be worse. Yankee pitching is in the bottom four of the American League in terms of preventing base runners and preventing power production. Either that improves, or the ERA likely follows into the bottom four. Hiroki Kuroda looks overmatched in the American League and Freddy Garcia looks old. That’s the bad news. The good news for Joe Girardi is that C.C. Sabathia, with a 5.59 ERA after three starts is another notoriously poor April pitcher who can be expected to get significantly better. And the bullpen looks really good—Cory Wade, David Phelps, Boone Logan and Rafael Soriano are all pitching well, and there’s some guy named Mariano at the back end.

If the Yankees are going to get the 95-100 wins they expect, they’ll need the starting pitching depth to come through and that’s no guarantee. But if they just get Sabathia on track, they can ride one horse, a great offense and a solid bullpen to about 92-93 wins, which I think will be enough to win the AL East this season.

Boston (4-8): About the only good thing that has happened for the Red Sox is that the Yankees and Rays haven’t gotten off to blazing starts, so Baltimore’s 8-5 currently leads the AL East. Granted, the Red Sox made some of that positive happen themselves when they beat Tampa three of four last weekend. That’s been the only winning series though, as Boston was otherwise swept in Detroit, lost 2 of 3 in Toronto and were beaten two straight by Texas this week at the Fens.

The Red Sox are similar to their rivals in that the offense looks pretty good, but the pitching is a problem. Underneath that superficial similarity are substantial differences through. Offensively, Boston still ranks just 8th in the American League in runs scored. The positive here is that they’re a top five offense in both OBP and slugging, something consistent with past norms and if that holds, the runs will catch up (just two days ago the Sox were 4th in runs scored, but the Texas pitching staff cured that). David Ortiz is red-hot and the fact he’s only hit one home run has to be more heartening to Bobby Valentine. Ortiz is slugging .596 thanks to seven doubles, a fruit of his new determination to go the other way more frequently. Ryan Sweeney has been a pleasant surprise early on, with an OBP/slugging line of .424/.656. Kevin Youkilis is off to a slow start. I would comment more on that, but I’m not physically or emotionally enough into this column to really evaluate it.

On the mound, it’s the bullpen that’s doing Boston in. Yes, the starters have been a problem. Daniel Bard’s  4.63 ERA is the best in the rotation, but both Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have pitched extremely well in two of three starts, with one complete meltdown driving the ERAs into the 5s. In the pen though, only Scott Atchison and Matt Albers are pitching well, and given that they’re the long relief guys, that spells trouble. On the positive side, perhaps some better outings from Alfredo Aceves his last two save opportunities mean he’s settling in.

Boston (of whom I’m a fan, in the interests of full disclosure) is the toughest team in baseball to evaluate. On paper, while the flaws are real, there’s no reason to think they won’t win 85-90 games, which can get them into that one-game wild-card showdown at the end of the season. Anyone in Boston would take their chances with Beckett or Lester, plus that offense in a one-game shot to reach the Division Series. But the games aren’t all about what’s on paper, and while I generally try to avoid evaluating clubhouse chemistry too much because I don’t have the information, it seems safe to say there aren’t too many secrets in the Hub right now, and what’s out in the open is all negative.

But as 100th anniversary festivities start, a plea to Red Sox Nation—for this weekend alone, let’s focus on the positives and the richness of the Red Sox heritage. Come Monday, call WEEI and start tearing the team apart again. And to ESPN—please avoid showing 50 shots of Bobby Valentine during the Sunday night game. There are really other players on the team, some of whom actually have full ring fingers.