Rivals in Exile: Clash of the Titans

Larry Mahnken: It has come at last, the meeting of the two best teams in the American League with it all on the line. The winner of this battle goes to the playoffs, the loser… also goes to the playoffs. But the winner plays a team that may or may not be better than the team the loser plays. And they get to host an elimination game if it comes to that!

Well, I guess there’s not really that much on the line, at least not anything tangible. But the intangible effect of winning the division, the emotional lift from knowing that you came back from a large deficit to win — something either team will have done no matter what the outcome — and having beaten your arch-rival just before the playoffs, that’s all on the line this weekend.

A week or two ago it seemed like the Yankees might have no chance in this series against Boston. They were struggling to beat teams they were much better than, even though they were winning, while Boston was steamrolling the best teams from the West. But then Boston slowed down, splitting a series with Seattle and winning two of three from Tampa Bay — a comparative failure after winning 8 of 9 from elite teams. The Yankees got humiliated by Baltimore and Kansas City, but came back with two straight shutouts. Both teams seemed to be coming into the series playing at their level, neither hot nor cold.

And in the first game, both teams played evenly. It was a spectacular game that was decided by the slimmest of margins: a great catch at the wall by Manny Ramirez to rob Miguel Cairo of a home run, and a slight hesitation by Kenny Lofton in the ninth that allowed the ball to drop and the winning run to score. Boston won the game, and got an emotional lift to be sure, but the Yankees at least proved that they can run with these guys just fine, thank you very much.

If the Yankees lose this division, but play very well against Boston like they did Friday, then I’m not really concerned at all. Their pitching rotation is seemingly coming together at the right time, with El Duque continuing to surprise and Mike Mussina returning to form lately. Javier Vazquez was good on Wednesday but is still very enigmatic, while Jon Lieber has been generally good lately. Still, if Duque and Moose do what they’ve done lately in October, they’re fine.

For the Yankees to lose the division, Boston needs to take four of six this weekend and next. If they split, they have to make up 3½ games in ten games, and if they lose four of six they’re done in the East. And if they lose the next five, they might have to start looking behind them.

I’m sure you’re thrilled with Boston’s win and how they came about it, but after you finish your revelling, answer me this: how the heck did Boston not score off of Tanyon Sturtze in 3.2 innings?

Ben Jacobs: It’s too early for revelling. The Red Sox won a game that was very important to them, and it’s definitely the right way to start if they plan on winning the division. But they’ve got a long way to go yet, and as you said, they have to win at least three more games against the Yankees to have a shot.

What I really love is how evenly matched these two teams seem to have become. In the last two seasons, they’ve played each other 40 times so far. From my memory and looking back at the game logs, 25 or 26 of those games have been amazingly exciting.

I know a lot of people couldn’t care less about the Yankees and Red Sox and would be just as happy if neither team were in existence. But even if you get annoyed by everybody pumping up the rivalry, you have to admit one thing: when these two teams meet these days, the games are great.

If even a third of the baseball games played each year were as intense and exciting as the games these two teams tend to play, football wouldn’t be running away in the race for most popular sport in America.

Looking back at the last two seasons, you have Clemens beating the Red Sox for No. 299 and then getting shut down in his first attempt for No. 300 the next week.

You have the Red Sox scoring four runs off Mussina and Rivera in the top of the ninth only to lose in the bottom of the ninth.

You have a classic Pedro/Mussina duel on Fourth of July weekend in which the Yankees won on a walkoff grounder to Todd Walker.

You have consecutive games at Fenway in which the winning team scored the winning run in its last at-bat, followed by Boston rallying with a six-run seventh inning.

You have a Pedro/Pettitte matchup in which neither team seemed to want to win, followed a week later by a David Wells gem in the last regular-season meeting to effectively end Boston’s hopes of winning the division.

You obviously have one of the best championship series ever played.

You have the eagerly anticipated first Red Sox/Yankees game of this season which introduced Javier Vazquez to the rivalry, followed by Curt Schilling’s first Boston start against the Yankees and then a day later Boston rallying to take three of four in the opening series.

You have the Red Sox winning their second game at Yankees Stadium this season in the 12th inning and then sweeping New York behind a Pedro beauty the next day.

You have the Yankees rallying with two runs each in the seventh and eighth innings to beat a reeling Red Sox team, followed by the game that effectively ended Nomar Garciaparra’s career in Boston.

You have the awakening series in which the Yankees won yet another one-run game in their final at-bat and appeared to be on the verge of completely destroying this year’s Boston team when A-Rod and Varitek fought and Mueller beat Rivera.

And you have Friday night.

The greatest thing about these games is that you can go into them expecting the unexpected, and not be disappointed. Both teams have won games in this rivalry the last two years under the strangest of circumstances.

I expect the Red Sox to beat the Yankees now not because I’m optimistic, but because they have, and in a myriad of ways. I didn’t expect the Red Sox to rally against Rivera on Friday, but I watched eagerly knowing they could, and they did.

This isn’t your father’s rivalry, where the Yankees and their fans could pat the Red Sox and their fans on the head and say, ‘Aw, that was a nice try, you almost had us for a second.’

Any Red Sox fan would be stupid to think that the Yankees can’t compete with Boston just because the Red Sox erased a big lead. But any Yankees fan would be more stupid to think these Red Sox are going to choke just because past Red Sox teams have.

When I look back at last October, I definitely shudder at the Game 7 loss, but I remember the thrill of Games 1, 4 and 6 when I sat down thinking the Red Sox had to win and they did. Despite the final outcome, the Red Sox gave me confidence last year that they could beat the Yankees, and they’ve added to that confidence this year.

If they’ve done for themselves even a fraction of what they’ve done for me, then the two games this weekend and the three games next weekend are very important. The Red Sox don’t have anything to lose, because nobody expected them to come back from that deficit to win the division, but they have a whole lot to gain. And I’m not talking about homefield advantage.

LM: Boston hasn’t erased that lead yet, they haven’t really done much more than they did last season, or in 2000. It doesn’t make it less impressive, but they also have a ways to go.

It took about an inning for me to get over the frustrating loss on Friday, because that’s about how long it took the Yankees to avert a possible sweep, the only foreseeable outcome of this series that would have seriously worried me. They stopped any potential momentum Boston was building, they got their lead back up the 3½, and they did to the Red Sox what a lot of Yankee fans felt like doing to their furniture the night before.

The blowout doesn’t mean that much from a practical standpoint, the Yankees beat up on a shaky Derek Lowe and the back of the Red Sox bullpen. It does make Boston’s offseason decision on Lowe a lot easier, but it’s not going to help the Yankees when they’re facing Pedro and Schilling.

One thing that does make me feel really good going forward from Saturday is the start of Jon Lieber, who came within 7 outs of a no-hitter against one of the top hitting teams in baseball. It’d be insane to expect that again, but Lieber’s certainly earned his pinstripes. There have been a few horrid blowouts in the past few weeks, but the Yankees have also gotten 12 excellent starts in the last 17 games, I wonder how much longer it’s going to take for people to stop talking about New York’s pitching problems. Mussina/Hernandez/Vazquez/Lieber isn’t a dominant rotation, but it’s certainly good enough.

Now we head into Sunday with the series even, and while Boston has Pedro on the mound, it’s also close to a must-win, and Mike Mussina isn’t going to make it easy for Boston to win it. It’ll probably be another great game like Friday’s, and might join that list of great games you just wrote.

Like I said, the actual importance of these games is fairly small, but they feel like October games.

BJ: I suspect people will stop talking about New York’s pitching problems somewhat if Mussina pitches well today, and they’ll stop talking about the problems almost entirely if Vazquez pitches well next weekend. As impressive as Mussina’s been in his last two starts and Vazquez was his last time out, people aren’t going to forget a whole season’s worth of results because of some starts against the likes of the Devil Rays and Royals.

If Mussina pitches well today, people will say he’s back, and the game probably will join that list I mentioned. If he gets lit up, people will say his recent success was just the result of pitching against crappy teams. If Vazquez gets lit up next weekend, even if he has a good start against Toronto before then, people will say he still can’t be trusted in the playoffs, and they’ll probably argue that he can’t handle the pressure of New York.

Of course, based on what Boston’s offense has done the past two days, things are looking pretty good for Mussina and Vazquez. But you can’t hope for that to continue, and I don’t expect that to continue.

I don’t know if this year’s Boston offense is better than last year’s, but it’s certainly more impressive. Last year’s offense scored 961 runs and had a .360 OBP and .491 SLG. This year’s offense is on pace to score 940 runs and has a .360 OBP and .475 SLG. That’s pretty darn close.

The difference is that last year’s offense was pretty much just nine guys. All nine of Boston’s regulars last year had at least 440 at-bats, and seven of them played at least 140 games (Trot Nixon played 134 and David Ortiz played 128).

This year, only six players will get to 440 at-bats, and only four players will get to 140 games. The 2004 Red Sox have already had 18 different guys get at least 75 at-bats. Last year, only 14 players had that many at-bats for Boston. That the Red Sox have needed so many more parts this season and are still almost as dangerous offensively is pretty amazing.

And I’d say Boston certainly has done more this year than in past years. In 2000, the Red Sox went 6-7 against the Yankees and missed the playoffs. In 2001, they went 5-13 against the Yankees and missed the playoffs. In 2002, they went 9-10 against the Yankees and missed the playoffs.

Last year, the Red Sox went 9-10 against the Yankees, but made the playoffs and nearly beat the Yankees in the ALCS. Should have beaten the Yankees in the ALCS as far as most people are concerned.

This year, the Red Sox will win the season series against the Yankees for the first time since 1999. They’ll make the playoffs again, and if they’re not considered favorites should the two teams meet in the ALCS, neither will they be considered underdogs.

Boston has shown it can hang with New York to the point that, in your opening to this discussion, you said, “the Yankees at least proved that they can run with these guys just fine, thank you very much.”

I doubt that’s been in doubt very often since before 1920.

Of course, none of that matters very much unless the Red Sox actually do beat the Yankees in the ALCS, but I think it’s the reason these games are so much more exciting right now. Boston fans expect the Red Sox to beat the Yankees rather than hoping they will, and Yankees fans can’t just brush off the Red Sox like they have in the past.

The mentality of the rivalry has changed the last two years, and it’s made it more of an actual rivalry instead of the continual one-sided beating it so often was before.

LM: Er, well, there are a couple of one-sided beatings for you right there.

I thought the Yankees had a good shot to win this series this weekend, and an outside shot to sweep. I figured all three games would be close, that the pitching matchups were even, and that Boston had cooled off enough that the Yankees could beat them without having to play out of their minds. Was I wrong?

I thought I might have been wrong in the other direction after Friday night’s comeback, that Boston might have gained the momentum to sweep the Yankees and take control of the division, but the Yankees awoke on Saturday afternoon to destroy the Sox, and then did it again Sunday. I wasn’t surprised that the Yankees won, I was surprised that they crushed them.

For weeks I’ve been one of the lone voices of confidence in this Yankees club, although my confidence has at times been shaken. It seemed like after every tough loss I had a dozen fans asking me what the hell was wrong with this team, and expressing no faith in their ability to win in the postseason. But after this weekend, there can no longer be any question about the Yankees’ ability to succeed.

They annihilated one of the very best teams in baseball, they pounded one of the best pitchers in history, and they completely shut down one of the best lineups in the game. Next person to complain about the Yankees’ ability to win in the postseason, the quality of their starting pitching, or the fact that they’ve dropped 6 games in the standings in a month gets the Francisco treatment from me. They’re fine. They might not win, but they should put up a good fight.

I’m not stupid enough to say that the AL East race is over again, I think I should have learned my lesson. What I will say is that it’s pretty close to being over. Even if the Red Sox can sweep out the Yankees in Fenway next weekend, they’ll have to make up another 1½ games in the other 10 games. Both could happen, so I’m not going to count them out. But I don’t think you or I expect it.

Fortunately for Boston, Anaheim has folded like a cheap suit in the last couple of weeks, giving the Red Sox a very healthy Wild Card lead, so the playoffs aren’t in question. But while the Yankees lost a sweep with Rivera’s blown save on Friday, Boston lost a glorious chance by failing to carry that momentum through the weekend. The question that comes out of this weekend for them is did the blowouts make these losses tougher to brush off or easier, and how important is it that they make a good showing in Fenway next weekend?

BJ: What an awful, wasted weekend. The Red Sox were a ninth-inning comeback built on a walk, a hit batter and two dinky hits away from getting swept out of Yankee Stadium. After that thrilling comeback win Friday night, Boston got pounded to the tune of 25-5 the next two days.

In the first eight innings of the three games, Boston was outscored 27-3. That isn’t good.

How important is next weekend’s series? Well, from a practical standpoint, not very. Even if the Red Sox sweep, it won’t be easy for them to win the AL East. Even if the Red Sox get swept, it won’t be easy for them to lose the wild card.

Psychologically, however, it could be a different matter. Well, for me at least. I don’t know how big a part the mental aspect plays in major league baseball. As you may have guessed, I’ve never played major league baseball.

One would think that losing your last five games against your archrivals to lose the season series after you appeared to have it locked up would affect your confidence in your ability to beat said rivals. However, one would think that a riveting comeback win like Friday’s would give the winning team an edge the next day.

I don’t think a Yankees sweep next weekend would really do anything to Boston’s postseason prospects. For one thing, the Red Sox wouldn’t be playing the Yankees in the first round, and they might not play the Yankees at all in the playoffs. Just because most people expect them to meet in the ALCS doesn’t mean they will.

However, a Yankees sweep next weekend would do a ton to shake my confidence in the Red Sox. It’s one thing to talk now about how they should be fine even if they get swept next weekend. It’s quite another to go through that sweep and say afterwards that they should be fine — and believe it.

If the Red Sox get swept next weekend, it will undo all the stuff I’ve been harping on about how this rivalry has changed and the Red Sox have their fans believing they can win rather than hoping. If the Red Sox get swept next weekend, most Boston fans would go back to crossing their fingers and hoping for the best while fearing and expecting the worst.

Luckily, unless the Yankees shift their rotation, the Red Sox have Schilling going against Brad Halsey next Sunday, so a sweep is pretty unlikely. Losing two of three would be bad, but the Red Sox would still win the season series, and if Schilling provides the one win, Boston would at least have won the last regular season game against New York.

Ultimately, I’m not real upset that I’m not going to be able to watch any of the three games next weekend. I’m sure at least one of them will be immensely exciting, but none of them are likely to have much of an effect on anything.

The Yankees and Red Sox are both very good teams. They’re both going to the playoffs. Neither of them is more likely than not to win the World Series, but they’re probably the two most likely champions. All the important questions will be answered when and if they meet in the ALCS.

Next weekend will be like a sneak preview for fans of both teams. It could look great, and then you get to the real thing and say, “Man, they put all the good stuff in the trailer.”

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