Rivals in Exile: Series #3

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: 47-26
Boston Red Sox: 42-32

Ben Jacobs: Well, hopefully last night’s blowout of the Phillies was the beginning of the end of this disappointing stretch for the Red Sox. I’ve been optimistic about Boston almost the entire season, but there are some things you just can’t sugarcoat.

Prior to Philadelphia’s arrival in town, the Red Sox had lost three straight series and had gone just 25-25 since their 15-6 April. What’s even more frustrating is the inconsistency they’ve been showing on offense. In those three series they just lost, the Red Sox scored 34 runs in their three wins and just 18 runs in their six losses.

The Boston offense has now scored at least nine runs in four straight victories, but they keep mixing in one, two and three-run performances for losses. The only thing that’s been comforting the last week or so is that the Red Sox are better than they’ve played.

First, as I mentioned to last week, they haven’t scored as many runs as they should have. If that starts to even out over the second half of the season, they’ll improve. Second, they didn’t have Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon for the first two months. If they play the way they should, the Red Sox will improve.

Still, it’s tough watching the Red Sox play .500 baseball for two months while the Yankees win seemingly every night. No team’s ever clinched a division title before the All-Star break, but this upcoming series at Yankee Stadium is a lot more important for the Red Sox than I wanted it to be.

The Red Sox don’t need to sweep the Yankees, and they’re probably not even in grave danger if they don’t win the series. But if they go into New York and get swept out, then the attention of all Boston fans will shift from what the Yankees are doing to what those three teams out West are doing. I’m just hoping it doesn’t come to wild-card watching this early in the season.

Larry Mahnken: And how I hope it does, but I do not expect it to be so. The Red Sox are catching a bit of a break this next week, with Kevin Brown still on the disabled list, Sheffield sore, and Giambi and Posada slumping. They have to face Javier Vazquez on Wednesday, but get Lieber and Halsey in the other two — the latter versus Pedro. Boston ain’t getting swept, and has a very good chance to win two of three — or even sweep again. Saturday’s loss by Boston to Philly cinches first place for the Yankees at the end of this series, no matter what, but there’s no “positive” spin that could be put on a series loss.

I think next week’s series really is more important for New York than Boston. True, they are in the lead, but they’ve only won a single game against the Sox this season — though they did have a chance to win two or three others. Losing two of three would be a blow to the good feelings generated by the turnaround since April, and getting swept would create serious doubts about their ability to beat Boston in the seemingly inevitable postseason showdown, unless they just barely lose two or three of them.

A series win, on the other hand, would deal just as serious a blow to the Red Sox, who have advantages in the pitching matchups, are catching the Yankees as their hot streak is appearing to ebb, and are currently in better health. It wouldn’t put the Red Sox out of anything by any means — though a sweep might, of course.

I do have worries that the Yankees are looking past the Mets right now, though. The other New York team isn’t nearly as good as Boston, but they are a solid team with realistic postseason hopes, and are going to put up a good fight.

BJ: Sunday’s doubleheader against the Mets sure is interesting now, isn’t it? If the Mets can somehow win both games (which I don’t expect to happen, but would love to see), then the Boss would really be in a sour mood and the upcoming Red Sox/Yankees series would become that much more important to the Yankees.

Even if the Mets and Yankees just split Sunday’s doubleheader, the importance of the Red Sox/Yankees series to the Yankees increases. The Mets and Red Sox are the two teams Steinbrenner seems to hate above all others, and he certainly wouldn’t be happy if his team lost back-to-back series to the two teams.

Ultimately, though, this nine-game stretch against the Mets and Red Sox isn’t that important to the Yankees. If they were to go 3-6, the papers might take them to task a little bit and Steinbrenner might get a little bit angry, but they’d still be 48-31 and in first place in the AL East.

I don’t care if they get swept by Boston and everybody in the world agrees that they don’t have the ability to beat the Red Sox head-to-head this year, I’m going to have a hard time believing the Yankees are too concerned about anything as long as they’re more than 15 games above .500.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, are on the verge of having very serious concerns. The longer they go without making up ground on the Yankees (or the more they continue to fall behind the Yankees), the more likely it will be that their only entryway to the post-season is the wild card.

While I thought the wild card would be a sure thing for the AL East runner-up before the season started, it’s not quite such a comfortable proposition anymore. The Rangers are playing out of their minds and are riding an eight-game winning streak that has them with the third-best record in baseball behind the Yankees and Cardinals.

At the same time, the A’s and Angels are both right behind the Red Sox. I still don’t think the Angels are as good as everybody else does, but I do expect the A’s to get better before the end of the year. And the fact that there are three teams playing well out West has me a little worried.

Before the season, I figured Oakland would win the AL West, Anaheim would be overrated, Seattle would slide into mediocrity and Texas would continue to be bad. So far, however, I’m not looking good on any of those counts, and there’s a serious chance that the Red Sox could be pressed by two teams from the West in a potential wild card race.

So, while I still think it’s more than likely that the Red Sox and Yankees will both make the playoffs, I’d feel a lot better about that belief if the Red Sox would start playing like a team that belongs in the playoffs. All I know for sure is that I’ll be livid if the Red Sox lose Sunday. Curt Schilling is pitching and a loss would make this the third straight series in which the Red Sox won the opener and still lost the series.

LM: And once again, the Yankees sweep the doubleheader from the Mets — they’ve swept all three they’ve played in their history. Maybe I should root for rain next Friday…

The weekend’s series were a push, but the week resulted in the Yankees tacking another game back onto their lead. I think back to when the Red Sox had swept the Yankees, and you described the shocked faces of the Yankee fans at the Stadium on Sunday — and how the Yankees have gained 11 games in the loss column since that day.

And now they have to hold it. Without Brown, forced to go with an erratic Lieber and uncertain Halsey, I’ll be surprised if they win this series, speechless if they sweep, and not all that surprised if they get swept again. It’ll be a test for the Yankees, no matter what the standings say right now.

But knowing that the Yankees will head to Shea with at least 2½ game lead in a worst-case scenario is comforting. So is the strange inconsistency of the Red Sox offense — they score 12 runs each for Pedro and Schilling, and jack for Arroyo. David Pinto recently suggested that the problem with Boston’s offense isn’t clutch hitting, but that their lineup doesn’t have enough power in the second half of it to drive home the runners who get on in the first half. Interesting theory, what do you think — and should Francona shake up the batting order to fix it?

BJ: I don’t think there’s much that Francona can shake up. Kevin Millar has lost his ability to hit and David McCarty never had that ability, and Pokey Reese and Kevin Youkilis both seem very much like below-average offensive contributors.

With that said, however, the Red Sox should be able to score plenty of runs with a top seven of Johnny Damon, Mark Bellhorn, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek. If the Red Sox have two weak spots in the lineup, then that’s probably no more than any other team has — regardless of what John Sterling and Charlie Steiner say about the amazing duo of Miguel Cairo and Enrique Wilson.

Make no mistake about it, this series is extremely important to both teams. If the Red Sox sweep, then they’re right back in the race for the division title. If the Yankees sweep, then the Red Sox will need to turn their attention to winning the wild card. If neither team sweeps, then the focus will probably shift to the next rivalry series in late July.

No matter what happens this week, however, it’s clear that the Red Sox will need to make up some ground in the month of July if they want to keep alive their chances of winning the division. The fact that they’re in such a precarious situation already is a little bit disturbing to me.

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