Rivals In Exile: Seven at the Break

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: 55-31
Boston Red Sox: 48-38

Larry Mahnken: For some reason, there were a lot of people who thought the AL East race was over a week and a half ago, including, I might add, you. Well, it ain’t. Boston’s not exactly breathing down the Yankees’ neck yet, but by gaining 2½ games in six days, they go into the All-Star Break no more out of it than they were before they got swept.

Now, that rebound in the standings by Boston was more due to the Yankees’ struggles than Boston’s play, but the Red Sox seem to have turned it around now, beating up on the best teams in the AL West. I’ll let you talk about that.

For the Yankees, their slump was due to poor pitching, something that hasn’t been fixed yet. Everybody knows about the enigmatic performances of Jose Contreras, but there have to be serious concerns about Mike Mussina. It looked like he may have been turning the corner in mid-June, but since pulling his groin against the Padres, he’s gone 2-2 with an 8.18 ERA, his two wins coming thanks to the Yankees scoring 21 runs in the first two of those four games. The rest of the rotation has been hot and cold, alternating good and bad starts. Vazquez has been on the good side more often than the bad side, but you just don’t know what you’re gonna get when Lieber’s out there.

Now, for the most part you know that these guys can pitch better than they have, and Mussina’s terrible start on Tuesday may be attributable to starting on three days’ rest — he looked spectacular early, then totally collapsed. When Kevin Brown gets back, that should stabilize things a bit. But it really looks like the Yankees are going to go all-out to get another starting pitcher, and they may even need him to win the World Series.

There’s been a lot of speculation about Randy Johnson. It’s not completely out of the question that the Yankees could pull off a deal for him, which would probably have to involve a third team, since the Yankees’ top prospects are all at positions where the Diamondbacks don’t need prospects, but it’s also not likely. Everybody needs to chill out a bit about these Johnson rumors, because Arizona hasn’t even put him on the block yet — and may not ever.

But the pitching problem runs deeper. While the Yanks are great at the back end of the pen, their middle relief is sorely lacking, with Tanyon Sturtze and Felix “The Run Fairy” Heredia usually coming in to eat up the middle innings. If you’re wondering why the Red Sox lead the Yankees in Pythagorean Percentage and why Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera or on a pace to pitch 10,000 innings each this year, there’s your answer right there. If the Yankees have a big lead, they’ll cough much of it up, and before you know it, it’s Quantrill/Gordon/Rivera time. Games they should win big become close wins.

I’m befuddled as to why they haven’t even come close to giving Columbus reliever Colter Bean a shot. Now, I understand he’s 27, but he also has a career 2.67 ERA in the minors, a 2.50 quick DIPS ERA, with a 2.41 ERA and 2.14 qDIPS this year. Sure, there’s plenty of reason to doubt that he can do that in the majors, but give him a chance. Three and two-thirds innings in Spring Training with Boston, as poor as they were, certainly don’t qualify as a chance. I don’t get it — if Bean was in Boston, Toronto, Oakland or Los Angeles’ system, they would have already have given him a chance. The Yankees ignore the numbers, and see some reason to be sure he can’t repeat them in the bigs. Instead, they give innings to guys who have proven they can’t pitch well in the majors. It’s mind-boggling.

Ben Jacobs: Are the Red Sox better right now than the Yankees? I wouldn’t have said it a week ago, but it looks to be the case. Are they 12 games better, as they would need to be if it were to be likely that they could make up this deficit? No.

Do the Red Sox have a chance to win the AL East? Yes, they do, and I’m hoping that they make me look stupid for that rant I went on last week. However, I’d still give the Yankees at least an 80-percent chance of winning the division.

That offense is still very good, although it would be a lot better if Jason Giambi wasn’t playing in such a way that I laugh heartily whenever I think about the four years and 82-million dollars he has left on his contract.

Despite the middle relievers, that bullpen has been very good because the back end of it is so extraordinary. The crazy workload you alluded to (Quantrill’s on pace for 90 games and 107 innings, Gordon 84 games and 96.1 innings and Rivera 80 games and 86.2 innings) might catch up eventually, but they’ve been dominant so far.

And that rotation is performing about as poorly as can be expected. Mussina has to get better, and maybe this trip to the DL will help him. Also, Brown should pitch better if he’s cured of his parasites. Contreras might still help, and there’s even a chance that today’s start by El Duque will lead to something.

Then there’s the fact that the Yankees will trade to get better. That’s just a fact of things, and you can’t ignore it when you talk about a team’s chances of making up ground on them. Will the Red Sox try to get better? Probably, but they don’t have as many apparent holes they can replace to improve.

The Yankees will get a starting pitcher, whether it’s Randy Johnson or somebody less scary than that. They’ll add a reliever or two of some sort to ease the pressure on their top three. And they could add a better second baseman if they felt like it.

What about the Red Sox?

Their bullpen has the best ERA in the AL, and as long as Scott Williamson will be returning at some point, they don’t really need to add anybody else.

They could probably use another starting pitcher, but it’s not as important to them as it is to the Yankees. The Red Sox are the only team in the AL with four pitchers in the top 20 in the league in ERA (the Yankees have just one) as of Sunday morning.

Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling are a combined 20-7 with a 3.41 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 230 strikeouts and just 52 walks in 243 innings. They haven’t been quite as dominant as I had hoped or expected, but they’ve been one of the best duos in the majors. Don’t forget about Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo, though.

Wakefield looked like he was washed up earlier this season, but now he has his ERA down to 3.97. Over his last three starts, he’s allowed five runs in 21 innings, but just one of those runs was earned. Arroyo looked like he was overmatched in the majors earlier this season, but his ERA’s down to 4.09 after his brilliant start on Friday. Over his last six starts, he has a 2.41 ERA (although he has allowed seven unearned runs in that time).

And then there’s the offense, which has scored 51 runs during this five-game winning streak, is four runs behind Texas for the most in the majors, and needs no tweaking whatsoever.

Johnny Damon is the best leadoff hitter in the majors right now, Mark Bellhorn’s the best-hitting second baseman in the AL right now and David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez might be the most fearsome 3-4 combo in the AL. Nomar Garciaparra and Bill Mueller seem to finally be healthy and Trot Nixon’s at least better than Gabe Kapler. Oh, and Jason Varitek is a decent catcher.

Kevin Millar’s numbers don’t look very good for a first baseman and I would have happily replaced him with almost anybody else not too long ago, but now I notice that he’s hitting .307/.384/.441 since the beginning of May, which is decent enough. The Red Sox even have a defensive specialist at the middle infield positions (Pokey Reese) and first base (David McCarty). The only thing they might want to add is a pinch-hitter who can actually, you know, hit.

What I’m saying is that the Red Sox aren’t better than the Yankees by enough to make a six-game hole look small and the Yankees are more likely to get better from here on out. With that said, I’m obviously in a much better mood today than I was last Sunday, and I’ll be whistling a happy tune all through the All-Star break if the Red Sox can finish up back-to-back sweeps of the two best teams in the AL West.

LM: Well, having lost 6-5 while the Yanks won again, are you whistling more of a dirge?

Mussina won’t be going on the DL, so that’s good news, and El Duque came back and gave the Yankees five strong innings, which is better news. The Yankees go into the break on a pace to win 104 games, despite a poor start, despite having been without Brown for a month, despite not having a healthy Giambi for most of the season, despite Jeter, A-Rod, Williams, and Moose playing below their expectations. I can’t really complain about very much, and I feel really good about things right now.

Coming out of the break, the Yankees’ schedule gets “easy” for a while before playing Boston at month’s end. Then it gets tough again as they face the AL West teams in August, as well as the Twins (though they’ve only lost once to them in the past couple of years). For the Red Sox, August is their “easy” month, so the Yankees need to not lose any of this lead between now and the next Sox series.

And another key aspect is that after Wednesday, the Yankees have only six days off until the end of the regular season, and Boston only five. The Yankees have been able to survive their lack of pitching depth with convenient off-days thus far, but no more. The Yankees won’t be able to hide a struggling starter, or a rookie — he’ll have to start every fifth day. And the Yankees are more likely than Boston to break down in the second half, though it’s not something that Boston can or should count on.

Still, if things break right for Boston coming out of the All-Star Break, this race could become very close again very quickly, so the Yankees really need to keep doing what they did these past four days — beat up on teams they’re clearly better than. Boston just needs to stay close until August, and they can expect to gain two or three games in that month, and try to make up the rest at the end of September.

BJ: I’m not whistling a dirge, but today’s results show why you were a little too quick to say “I told you so” at the beginning of this discussion. You said that the results of the past week left the Red Sox no worse off than they were before the sweep by the Yankees.

And now? The Red Sox were 5½ games behind the Yankees on Monday, June 28. Since then, they’ve lost 1½ games in the standings and 12 games on the schedule in which to make up their deficit. Of the 30 teams in the majors, only the Yankees and Cardinals can start printing playoff tickets pretty safely. So, I’d “feel really good about things right now” if I were you, too.

I know it’s possible that Boston could jump right back in this and I’d be as happy as anybody else if that happened, but I’m at the point of the season where I feel the Red Sox are no longer competing with the Yankees. Right now, they’re competing with whoever the AL West runner-up will be and, maybe, the Twins or White Sox.

With that in mind, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for me if Johnson did get traded to the Yankees, although it’s certainly not something I want to happen. A much worse occurrence, however, would be if Johnson gets traded to the Angels.

I didn’t think the Angels were a special team before the season started and I don’t think they’re a special team right now. However, they’d be a lot scarier if they shored up their biggest weakness (starting pitching) with one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.

I still don’t believe in the Rangers, because I think they’re pitching just has to fade at some point. However, the A’s are for real and I’ll be a little surprised if Billy Beane doesn’t do something to make them even better before the trading deadline.

I think the A’s are capable of winning 95 games this season and the addition of Johnson would probably make the Angels capable of winning 95 as well. And if there are two teams out West that are capable of winning 95 games, Boston’s task will be that much more difficult.

If the Red Sox make up a couple games here and a couple games there, then I’ll start watching the Yankees results with greater interest. For now, though, the only reason I like seeing the Yankees lose is that I just like seeing the Yankees lose. It’s not because I think it helps the Red Sox.

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