The Yankees entered the ALCS having lost four consecutive Game Ones, but winning three of the series. Last season, the Yankees were able to rebound because of the incredible depth of their rotation — something their staff might of matched this season, but hasn’t. In this season’s ALDS, it wasn’t a death-blow because they had lost to the best pitcher in the American League, and matched up well with the rest of the Twins’ starters. This series, Game One looked to be crucial to the Yankees.
New York has had an astounding amount of success against Pedro Martinez, but it was usually with a pitcher more dominant than Jon Lieber facing off against him. If Curt Schilling had defeated the Yankees’ most reliable starter, Mike Mussina, they would be facing the possibility of four more games against two of the best starters in baseball, having to win at least two without their ace starting any of them. Losing Game One wouldn’t be a death-blow, but it would be a major setback to the Yankees’ chances for the American League pennant.
Coming into this series, the Red Sox have been favored by many because they won the season series, they had time to set their rotation, and their roster was judged as superior to New York’s by many, many analysts. Boston may well be the better team, and they well may triumph in this series, but it’s easy to oversimplify this series, and forget that for the most part these teams played each other very, very evenly. In a game where lesser teams defeat superior teams in a short series fairly regularly, predicting victory for one of these teams is an exercise in futility.
Still, Game One was a more important game for the Yankees than the Red Sox. Boston isn’t relying on Curt Schilling to carry them in this series, and while the Yankees aren’t relying on Mussina, he’s a big part of their plan.
Game One promised to be a nail-biter, and while it ended up as just that, it got there in an abnormal fashion. Schilling, suffering from tendonitis in his ankle, was ineffective; giving up two runs in the first and four more in the third, and it quickly looked like a laugher for the Yankees. Boston pulled him after three and brought in the back of their bullpen to stop the bleeding, and then Tim Wakefield came in and started it up again, giving up two more runs in the sixth.
At this point, the Red Sox were simply trying to avoid being humiliated. Mike Mussina was literally perfect; having retired the first nineteen batters he’d faced in dominating fashion. But the twentieth batter, Mark Bellhorn, hit a double off of the left-centerfield wall, and the Red Sox would tack on three more hits and three runs before Mussina was lifted from the game for Tanyon Sturtze. Sturtze gave up a two-run homer to Jason Varitek — Varitek’s first hit in Yankee Stadium all season — and not only was it a game again, but Mike Mussina was left with a terrible line for a great start. But more importantly, with six outs left the Red Sox were only three runs back, and the comeback continued in the eighth.
Tom Gordon, recovering from being hit in the eye by a cork in the ALDS victory celebration, came within inches of blowing the game, when David Ortiz hit a deep fly ball off the top of the left-centerfield wall to score two runs and end up at third. Mariano Rivera came in and induced a popup from Kevin Millar, but now Boston was only a homer away from tying the game.
Now it was the Yankees’ turn to step up, and with Bernie Williams’ double over the head of Manny Ramirez in the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees had given Rivera two vital insurance runs. Still, Boston got the tying run up in the ninth with one out, before Bill Mueller — who had homered off of Rivera in July — bounced back to the mound for a game-ending double play.
How should the Yankees feel about this game? How should the Red Sox?
For the Yankees, it is first and foremost a positive. They won a game, and needing only four wins for the pennant, that made everything else worth it. But it’s not as big a positive as it could have been or perhaps should have been. They beat Curt Schilling and beat him up, but they nearly blew the game, something they probably won’t have the run-cushion to survive again. They got a brilliant start from Mike Mussina, but he also lost it very quickly and at a very low pitch count. They got the win, but can they keep winning like this?
For Boston, it’s on the whole a negative, but less of one than it could or should have been. Schilling got bombed, but having thrown only 58 pitches, he can start Game Four (and then potentially Game Seven) without having to have second thoughts. All that’s in question now is the condition of his ankle. Their comeback came up short, but they finally got to Tanyon Sturtze, they knocked Tom Gordon around, and were hardly dominated by Mariano Rivera. And also, after climbing within one run of tying the game, they gave up two runs in the bottom of the eighth with Mike Timlin, one of their best relievers on the mound. They can’t feel too good about that.
The Yankees can’t feel euphoric about this win, Boston can’t feel deflated. There are too many positives and negatives to temper the feelings. For the Yankees, it makes Game Two less important, though still quite important. For Boston there isn’t a sense of urgency to win Game Two, though a poor start by Pedro Martinez could spell trouble. If Boston falls behind 2-0, this series is still far from over. I wouldn’t even count Boston out if they were down 3-0. With Schilling and Pedro starting three of the remaining games in that scenario, I could see those two winning their starts all by themselves, and the lineup winning the fourth game. Not likely to happen, mind you, but I could see it happen.
The Yankees shouldn’t — and won’t — feel comfortable about this series until the Red Sox are dead and buried. They aren’t dead yet, nor are they even coughing. But the Yankees have established that they’re mortal, and that’s a start.