Rivals in Exile: Back and Forth

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in Rochester, New York. The similarities pretty much end there.

Ben was born in Springfield, Massachusetts; Larry’s from Long Island. Ben’s not particularly into politics or religion; Larry will talk endlessly about both — whether you’re interested or not. Ben is easy-going; Larry throws furniture.

But more than anything else, they are defined by the teams they love. Larry is a proud citizen of the Yankees’ Evil Empire, while Ben lives and dies with the Red Sox. With two great writers like this living in the same city, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

New York Yankees: 30-19
Boston Red Sox: 31-20

Ben Jacobs: It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m watching the Red Sox get pounded by the Mariners (it’s 5-0 after three innings), but since they entered today with the best record in the majors and they’ve got Curt Schilling going tomorrow, I’m not going to get too upset if they lose today. Speaking of entering the day with the best record in the majors, it hasn’t gone quite like we might have expected, but the Red Sox and Yankees have the two best records in baseball at 30-18 and 29-18, respectively.

The Yankees lead the AL with 264 runs scored (the Red Sox are fourth at 259) and the Red Sox lead the AL with a 3.72 ERA and a ridiculous 2.70 ERA from the bullpen (the Yankees are fifth in both categories at 4.47 overall and 3.81 from the bullpen). Some players are still struggling (or not playing, in Boston’s case), but there is enough star power on both teams that it hasn’t been a problem.

As I’ve been writing this, Manny Ramirez hit his AL-leading 14th home run and he has to be the best early candidate for AL MVP as he’s absolutely carried this team. Before the game, he was hitting .350/.441/.644 with 13 homers, 32 runs and 33 RBIs. He hasn’t been the only one taking care of business at the plate, however.

Even with their lineup thinned by injuries, the Red Sox might just have the best top five of any starting lineup in the majors right now. Johnny Damon leads off with a .392 OBP and a .280 GPA and has 31 runs scored and 27 RBIs. Mark Bellhorn has settled in as the No. 2 hitter and he has a .381 OBP, .273 GPA, 35 runs and 32 RBIs. David Ortiz is proving last year was no fluke by hitting .289/.358/.568 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs in front of Ramirez. And Jason Varitek follows Ramirez hitting .298/.418/.525 with eight home runs.

On the other side, Boston’s league-leading pitching staff has been anchored by its two big free agent acquisitions. Schilling is 6-3 with a 2.82 ERA, 66 strikeouts and 10 walks in 70.1 innings and Keith Foulke has a 0.36 ERA, 20 strikeouts and six walks in 25.1 innings. So, even though Nomar and Nixon haven’t played, Pedro hasn’t quite been Pedro and Derek Lowe has stunk up the joint, the Red Sox have gotten enough great performances that they’re right where you’d expect them to be.

None of the Yankees starting pitchers have really been great yet, but Mariano Rivera has been outstanding with a 1.00 ERA, 22 strikeouts and 11 walks in 27 innings as he’s gone 17 for 18 in save opportunities. And he’s been set up beautifully by Tom Gordon, who has a 1.59 ERA, 21 strikeouts and 10 walks in 28.1 innings.

And the New York offense has started to show why people were so afraid of it to begin the season. Alex Rodriguez has bounced back completely from his slow start and is hitting .292/.380/.546 with 12 homers, 34 runs and 29 RBIs. Hideki Matsui is hitting much better than I ever thought he would with a .970 OPS, eight homers, 39 runs and 29 RBIs and Jason Giambi (.946 OPS) and Jorge Posada (1.072 OPS) have both been outstanding when they’ve been able to play. Even Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield have started to heat up a bit recently.

During the off-season, I was worried that everybody thought things would be too easy for the Red Sox and Yankees and I thought there was the potential for a big disappointment by one or both teams. So far, though, neither team has been clicking on all cylinders yet and it has been that easy anyway. What are these two juggernauts going to do when they really get going? It’s probably going to be a fun summer as we find out.

By the way, as I’ve been writing this, the Red Sox have rallied to cut the lead to 5-4 after six innings. That’s the nice thing about having an offense that works the pitcher and gets on base, a starter in Tim Wakefield who can keep the game within reach even when he doesn’t have his best stuff and a bullpen that very rarely allows the other team to expand its lead. I don’t know if the Red Sox will come all the way back and win this one, but I almost always feel confident that they can come back and they frequently do.

Larry Mahnken: Well, that comeback didn’t quite work out, eh? Welcome to second place, Red Sox! Population: You.

Anyway, I think saying that Derek Jeter has started to heat up a bit is the understatement of the year. After bottoming out at .189 on Wednesday, Jeter raised his Batting Average 32 points in three days. I’ll repeat that, because it bears repeating.

Derek Jeter raised his Batting Average 32 points in three days.

He’s still batting .220 (through Saturday), but I think it’s safe to say that the reports of Derek Jeter’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Like I said last week, it really didn’t seem like he was hurt, and the past week has pretty much laid that theory to rest. He’s still got a loooooooooooooooong way to go to get to a respectable average, but what he did the first two months only impacted the first two months — where the Yankees did just fine — so it’s more important that he just do well the rest of the way. It looks like he’ll be able to.

What really blown me away isn’t the incredible improvement of Hideki Matsui — which I’ll get to in a bit — but the production the Yankees have gotten from their weaker players. Ruben Sierra has hit 6 home runs in May, and has a GPA well over .310 for the month. Enrique Wilson has 4 homers in the last eight games, and 22 RBI. His overall value has been horrid (.198 GPA), but he’s gotten his hits when they’ve counted. Wilson and Cairo have in fact combined for more RBI than any player on the Yankees. That’s surprising, to say the least.

Wilson’s production isn’t going to keep up, and I don’t think Sierra will keep it up either. But the production of Tony Clark and Kenny Lofton is something that’s both surprising to me, and yet something I expect them to continue. Both have been solid in limited play, and Clark has been great since Jason Giambi was injured last week. Their production means that the Yanks are certain to have at least one decent bat off the bench every game, something that will pay huge dividends later.

Now, Hideki Matsui has been spectacular. He’s still hitting the ball on the ground more than in the air, but no more than several other excellent hitters, and he’s only grounded into one double play. He’s shown excellent power, and more than that, outstanding patience, walking more than he strikes out, and he’s on a pace for over 110 walks.

But I’m going to temper my enthusiasm by recalling that he did the same exact thing last June that he’s done this May. Last June he was hitting the ball in the air, and it seemed like every time he swung the bat he hit the ball hard. His overall numbers were fantastic, but the numbers for every other month were mediocre, and downright bad for a left fielder. His .276 GPA in April was solid, but nothing like what he’s done this month. If he can keep hitting close to this in June, then I’ll say he’s worthy of the All-Star spot he’s inevitably going to get — and perhaps MVP consideration down the line — but for now I’ll just say he’s been spectacular this season.

The real disappointment with the Yanks is the rotation. No, it isn’t bad, but it ain’t that good, either. Going into the season I figured the Yanks had the pitching edge, and the Sox had the hitting edge. It looks like it’s the other way around so far, with the Yankees often falling behind when their starter struggles, then coming back with a couple of explosive innings.

It’s certainly a more exciting way to play, but it’s also something that could bite them in the rear end in October. Brown‘s been good — his Saturday start was brilliant, but Torre left him in after he lost effectiveness in the eighth — Vazquez has mixed a couple of clunkers and couple of spectacular outings with a few pedestrian ones, and Mussina has been all over the place. Lieber‘s been great, Contreras has been… Lieber’s been great.

Someone needs to step it up and have a month like Pettitte and Moose each had last August, to take some pressure off the offense, and more importantly, off the bullpen. Gordon’s been great, and Rivera’s looked shaky only because he’s getting through the ninth inning with less efficiency than we’re used to. But the only other reliever Torre trusts, Paul Quantrill, has been overworked and is losing effectiveness.

Gabe White had been solid for the first month and a half, but a horrid 13th inning in Seattle made Torre lose all faith in him, and he was buried for ten days, with predictably poor results when he came back. Felix Heredia has been horrible, and the last guy in the bullpen this year hasn’t been a pitcher so much as a white flag.

Now, the bullpen doesn’t need help so much as it needs a break, but help might be on the way. Steve Karsay, who I — and Joe Torre — had pretty much completely given up on after a setback in his rehabilitation at the beginning of the month, has been pitching off the mound for a week and on Saturday pitched in an extended spring training game. He didn’t pitch well, but his velocity was good — hitting 94 on the gun — and the Yankees might set a timetable for his return soon. I don’t expect him to be as good as he was in 2002, but they don’t need him to be. Adding Karsay as the last man in the bullpen can’t be anything other than a positive, not when they’ve got a Devil Rays reject there right now.

BJ: Larry, I’d be more impressed with the fact that Jeter raised his batting average 32 points in three days, if it wasn’t already the third time this season he’s raised his average by at least 25 points in three days. And that’s not even counting the first couple weeks, when everybody’s average fluctuates wildly.

Jeter was hitting .161 after April 28, and then went 5-for-14 in his next three games to get his average up to .188 (a 27-point increase). He then went back into a slump until his average had dropped to .177 after May 8. At that point, he went 7-for-15 in his next three games to get the average up to .209 (a 32-point increase).

After that, of course, he went back into his slump and was hitting .189 when the three days that you’re so excited about started. He went 9-for-14 this time to again raise his average 32 points, this time to .221. Maybe he’s back on track for good this time and maybe he’s not, I don’t know. But before we get too worked up about him, let’s see him have at least a couple consistently good weeks.

As for you trying to get my goat about the Red Sox being in second place again, it’s not going to happen. As I mentioned yesterday, Schilling’s pitching for the Sox tonight. If he can do what he usually does, the Sox will have won four consecutive series, and I’ll take that any time.

Also, I found out last night that Garciaparra is finally ready to start his rehab assignment. He’ll play with Pawtucket in Louisville tonight (Sunday) and tomorrow and then head back to Boston to be evaluated. Then, he’ll probably return to the PawSox in Toledo, and he could be back in Boston’s lineup by this time next week. I never imagined it would take Nomar this long to get back, but I’m thrilled that he’s getting close to returning.

You might say that the Red Sox haven’t missed Nomar that much because Bellhorn (offensively) and Pokey Reese (defensively) have played so well, but that’s not close to true. With Nomar out, the backup middle infielder has been Cesar Crespo and he’s posted a ridiculously bad .136 GPA in 69 at-bats.

When Nomar returns, Crespo will get no at-bats and the Red Sox will be in a better position to maximize the skills of Reese and Bellhorn. Right now, they need both to play almost every day. With Nomar back, they’ll be able to mix and match depending on whether they feel offense or defense is more important in the situation. I’m hoping Bellhorn plays much more than Reese, but either way, it’ll be nice to have one of them on the bench instead of Crespo.

It’s not often that a 30-19 team (and the Red Sox have played as a 30-19 team should, with 263 runs scored and 212 runs allowed) adds a player of Nomar’s caliber and it’s less often that there’s another key addition (Nixon) on the horizon. And while you’re happy that Karsay’s coming back, the excellent Red Sox bullpen will eventually get Scott Williamson (probably the team’s second-best reliever) back.

So, you’re not going to get me down by pointing out that the Red Sox lost yesterday to fall half a game behind the Yankees. There are just too many things going right in Boston to let one loss upset me.

LM: You talk about Williamson like he’s been out all year. He’s been out two weeks. Jason Giambi’s been out a week, he’ll be back soon, too. I think he trumps Williamson.

This 32 points Jeter added last week was a lot more impressive than the 32 points Jeter added a month ago — two more hits in one less at-bat; six of those nine hits were for extra bases, and two of those doubles were nearly home runs. His outs have been hit hard, and he’s looking good at the plate. I expect to see his batting average above .250 at the All-Star Break.

The Red Sox are adding Nomar and Nixon (and getting back Williamson), but that doesn’t mean they’re going to play any better. The Yankees started 26-11 (.703) last year without Rivera and Jeter, the bullpen of no hope, and with Jason Giambi batting .204 in April. After that, they were 75-50 (.600) — still the best in the AL, but a significant dropoff. The Yankees played so well because they had a weak schedule and some players played much better in April than they did the rest of the Year.

The latter reason doesn’t really apply to the Red Sox (although Varitek and Foulke stand out as players who are playing better than they will the rest of the way), but the former does. Boston’s opponents have been under .500 this season (something you were harping on from Spring Training), while the Yankees had to take on Anaheim and Chicago, with minimal exposure the Orioles, and none to the Blue Jays and Indians.

New York’s going to get better output from Jeter and Sheffield, which should counter a probable dropoff by Posada and Matsui. Their pitching should be a little better, and they’re certain to get a better second baseman — not an All-Star, but certainly better than Wilson and Cairo. And their schedule’s getting easier.

The return of Nixon and Garciaparra will be balanced by the tougher schedule the rest of the way, at best it will help the Red Sox keep pace with the Yankees.

BJ: I was going to gloat a little bit tonight. I was going to say, “Welcome to second place, Yankees! Population: You.” I was going to laugh at the fact that the only starting pitcher for the Yankees who you could say nice things about yesterday went out and got shelled by the Devil Rays today.

Then, however, the Yankees almost came back and won and the Red Sox almost screwed up and lost. Both games ended up working out the way I wanted them to, but it was a little closer than I would have liked. Ultimately, though, the Red Sox again have best record in baseball, and life is good.

I don’t think I can agree with your statement that the best Nixon and Garciaparra can do is help the Red Sox keep pace with the Yankees. I know the Red Sox should have the tougher schedule from here on out, but Nixon and Garciaparra will be huge upgrades if they play the way they should.

At best, their return will help the Red Sox pull away from New York. At worst, their return won’t be enough to prevent the Red Sox from falling off the pace in the AL East. Most likely, their return will mean that the Red Sox and Yankees will keep pace with each other.

We’re on the eve of June right now, and I still don’t see a clear favorite in this rivalry this season. Both teams are obviously very good, but both also have some problems right now. All I know is that I’m looking forward to finding out over the next four months — and then probably seven games — which team is better. Especially since you can color me unimpressed with the rest of the American League.

LM: Oops! Welcome back to second place! By a whole .004 points! Er, I get the feeling that this is gonna happen all summer… probably should stop paying attention to the standings until someone gets a lead of more than a couple of games.

New York clearly has the easier schedule the rest of the way — lesser interleague opponents, and fewer games against the tougher AL teams than Boston. But I have to agree — no offense to the fans of other AL teams, but they’re simply not in the class of Boston and New York when they’re healthy. It doesn’t mean that the pennant is going to go to one of these teams, but a playoff berth looks pretty assured to them both.

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