Rivals in Exile: Reversal of Fortune

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.

Ben Jacobs: Normally, I don’t like saying things that sound this corny, but is it possible that the outcome of the first round of games between Boston and New York was beneficial to both teams?

Boston was banged up, has a new manager and long history of disappointment against the Yankees. Yet the Red Sox eased the minds of just about every New Englander by taking six of seven against the Evil Empire to stake an early claim to the best record in the major leagues.

And not only that, but Manny Ramirez — who some people thought might be a problem after the team put him on waivers and then tried to trade him this off-season — started his own web site, became more outgoing with the media and, most importantly, completely carried the offense throughout the first month of the season. Ramirez hit .388/.448/.647 with five home runs and 16 RBIs in April to help the team average 4.9 runs scored per game despite the absence of Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon.

Meanwhile, the Yankees discovered quite suddenly that they weren’t as indestructible as some people were saying in the off-season. They learned that teams, especially the Red Sox, weren’t just going to roll over for them because of their payroll and the names on their roster.

After getting embarrassed — and it must have been very embarrassing to both the Yankees and their fans that you could hear clear, sustained chants of “Let’s Go, Red Sox!” at Yankee Stadium last Sunday — by Boston, the Yankees then had to go face each member of Oakland‘s Big Three in the following series.

You could almost hear Yankee-haters across the country whispering “8-14″ and giggling with delight. Not so fast, though. An amazing comeback in the opener stopped the bleeding for New York, an encouraging start by Jose Contreras gave the Yankees some momentum and a tidy three-game sweep put them right back at square one with an 11-11 record.

The Yankees were going to turn things around eventually anyway, but that will be the series everybody talks about if New York goes on to win the World Series. The way the Yankees had been hitting, most people thought they would at least lose two of three games to the A’s. And with the Red Sox having a good shot at sweeping the Devil Rays, which they obviously did, the Yankees would have been 6.5 games out of first place before April was even over.

Instead, the Yankees kept pace against a tougher opponent and put an end to all of the negative thinking by the media and by their fans. For people who were worried about New York’s chemistry or toughness or whatever else you might think the 1996-2000 teams had, it must have been great to see these Yankees come out punching after getting beaten up and backed into a corner.

Anyway, now that I’ve heaped all that praise upon the Yankees for what they did at the beginning of last week, I feel it’s my duty to say at least one more good thing about the Red Sox. So, how about that bullpen?

It’s amazing what a difference a year can make. Last year, fans all over New England cringed, bit their nails, gritted their teeth, braced for impact or whatever else you want to call it whenever the Red Sox went to the bullpen.

This year, I honestly never feel as though the Boston relievers are going to give up a run. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t remember the last time they did give up a run before Saturday, but you’ve got to admit that this is one awesome bullpen.

They obviously won’t be quite this good all year, but Keith Foulke is one of the best relievers in baseball, Scott Williamson‘s good enough to be the closer for most teams and Alan Embree and Mike Timlin are pretty darn good when you’re not relying on them to be your top options.

And now that Byung-Hyun Kim is back in the rotation, Bronson Arroyo is in the bullpen and Phil Seibel is in the minor leagues, I don’t think there’s anybody on the pitching staff who’s below average. This team is going to allow a lot fewer runs than last season (809), so all the offense has to do is get within shouting distance of the 962 runs it put up last year.

One more thing before I let you respond: it was clear watching the games that these first seven contests between the Red Sox and Yankees were played way too early in the season to have a normal level of rivalry-induced excitement surrounding them. However, because of what happened in the two series, the intensity of the other 12 (and maybe more) games will be through the roof. The two teams next meet for a three-game series at the end of June and both teams will be looking to prove something.

The Yankees will want to show that they’re much better than they played in these seven games and the Red Sox will want to show that they didn’t win six of the games just because the Yankees were struggling. I’m already excited about the next round of the fight.

Larry Mahnken: You know, looking back on those seven games, there’s a feeling of extreme regret that the offense didn’t wake up a week or so earlier. Another couple of runs Monday, Saturday and Sunday, and the Yankees win four of seven, instead of losing six.

But they didn’t, and it’s best for the Yankees to put that behind them, as apparently they have. Tuesday’s comeback against the A’s had to have lifted the team emotionally, and since then, we’ve seen a lot of what this lineup is capable of.

The silver lining of the sweep by Boston is that it lowered expectations. The more “Chicken Little” types were starting to talk about the Yankees as though they were going to be a mediocre team all season. Whereas before the Yankees being in second place by half a game at the end of May would have been cause for mass firings, they can now afford to be a couple of games behind Boston for a couple of months without anyone hitting the panic button.

I never did panic, I was just aggravated that they played so poorly against the Red Sox. They might not be at their best when they meet again, but I doubt the whole lineup will be slumping then.

There were a whole lot of positives for New York apart from the victories this week. Derek Jeter broke out of his 0-32 slide in dramatic fashion on Thursday, with a leadoff homer off of Barry Zito, and on Saturday broke out of his slump with three hits. A-Rod looks like his bat is completely awake, and Bernie Williams clubbed his first homer. Miguel Cairo seems to have finally taken the second base job away from Enrique Wilson, and Ruben Sierra‘s making me look like an idiot.

The pitching staff looks to be straightening out, too. Vazquez and Brown remain outstanding, and Mike Mussina and Jose Contreras had solid, if unspectacular, starts against the A’s. The best news of the week was the return of Jon Lieber, who pitched a very efficient game against the Royals.

But injuries are starting to sneak up on the Yankees, and from some unlikely places. Jorge DePaula, who was supposed to be the chief benefactor from the Yankees’ fragility, had Tommy John surgery and is out for the year. Travis Lee, who was supposed to back up Jason Giambi at first, looks like he’ll be out for the season, too. Steve Karsay suffered another setback in Tampa and is unlikely to return this season, eliminating my hopes for what would have been an exceptionally dominant bullpen. And we haven’t even heard from Brown, Giambi or Bernie yet. This is somewhat ominous.

It may well end up being that all the injuries will come from unlikely places, though, as the Yankees are being mindful of the health of those players with injury problems, and may be able to prevent anything from happening. I wouldn’t say there are any extra bullets in the gun pointed at the Yankees’ head, but the bullets may be of a higher caliber, as the team’s depth is even more lacking now.

As for the Red Sox, they are doing very well, despite ranking second-to-last in baseball in productive outs, something that will surely cost them in the postseason.

BJ: Since I pretty much know what your philosophies about baseball stats and strategies are, I’m going to assume that last sentence was a shot at Buster Olney and not at the Red Sox. As you obviously know, but some of our readers may not, Olney wrote a ridiculous article about productive outs for ESPN.com that included a new stat called Productive Out Percentage.

I’m not going to say a whole lot about the article because it doesn’t have much to do with the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. However, if the Red Sox don’t win the World Series this year, I’m pretty sure their Productive Out Percentage will not be one of the many things I’m likely to complain about or be angry about.

In fact, if I found out that the Red Sox were among the league leaders in a stat called Productive Out Percentage, I’d probably lose some of the faith I have in Theo Epstein and the rest of the Boston front office. For the most part, productive outs are just unproductive at-bats. I’d much rather have a front office that wants to concentrate on not making outs than one that wants to concentrate on making them in the best way possible.

If there’s any stat that’s annoying me about the Red Sox right now, it’s their hitting with runners in scoring position. Overall, the Red Sox are hitting .262/.351/.418, which is a far cry from what they did last year but is still good enough that it would have put them among the top 10 offensive teams in 2003.

However, with runners in scoring position, the Red Sox are hitting an anemic .226/.331/.357. To put that into perspective, the only team in baseball that did worse than that with runners in scoring position last year was Detroit, which hit .228/.298/.349 in those situations. Obviously, Detroit was a slightly weaker offensive team overall than the Red Sox are this year.

Even that stat doesn’t worry me too much, though, because I think it’s largely luck. It’s not common for a team to perform that much worse with runners in scoring position than it does overall, so the Red Sox offense should improve even before taking into account the returns of Garciaparra and Nixon.

That stat also leads me to a rebuttal of your argument that the Yankees could have won four of seven games if only they had snapped out of their hitting slump a little earlier. Well, that may be true, but we can play the “what if” game with all sorts of scenarios.

What if the Red Sox hadn’t been unable to get a hit with a runner in scoring position most of the time? Maybe the six wins would all have been embarrassing blowouts.

What if the Red Sox hadn’t had to reshuffle their rotation because of rainouts? Maybe Derek Lowe wouldn’t have gotten knocked around in his first start against the Yankees and the Red Sox would have won all seven games.

I can understand that you’re annoyed that New York’s bats were slumping, but don’t just assume that it’s the only reason the Red Sox won six games. There were some annoying things happening to them as well, and it didn’t seem to hurt their bottom line.

And I don’t know if you can use the fact that they were slumping this time around to say that they’ll definitely do better against the Red Sox the next time. While it’s likely that the Yankees offense will be working better when the two teams meet next, it’s also likely that the Red Sox will be less beat up and/or the Yankees will be more beat up.

Until it gets closer to the end of June, we won’t know which team is more likely to play significantly better or worse than in the April meetings. In the meantime, I think we’re at the point where everybody can safely go back to assuming that both the Red Sox and Yankees will make the playoffs.

LM: Nah, the Red Sox are obviously in a death sprial now, and will miss the postseason by 20 games.

Ben, the only reason the Red Sox won six games was that New York was slumping. If New York wasn’t slumping, maybe Boston would have won five games, or four games, or even lost both of the series. But they wouldn’t have won six games. If you really think the Red Sox are better than their 15-6 start, seek help.

The Yankees started 2003 20-4 without Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera, with Jason Giambi slumping horribly and having to turn to the bullpen of lost dreams late in games. When Rivera and Jeter came back… they played .500 ball for most of May. Boston’s had some tough breaks early, but they’re not going to win 120 games.

When we started this week’s exchange, Boston was in the midst of a six-game winning streak and led the Yankees by 4½ games. Some Boston fans were going a little overboard and saying that the Yankees had their hands full trying to make up such a large deficit against such a great team as the Red Sox. Well, it couldn’t be that tough, since the Yankees have made up 2/3 of the deficit in seven days. Now it’s the Red Sox who’ve been swept, the Yankees who have won six straight, and we’re right back where we started a week and a half ago.

Forget about both these teams making the playoffs — this division is still wide open.

BJ: I don’t think the Red Sox are better than they’re 15-6 start, but I still disagree with your assessment that they definitely would not have won six of the seven games if the Yankees weren’t slumping.

It doesn’t matter if the Red Sox were as good as, better than or worse than they’re record showed. The fact of the matter is that the Red Sox did win six of seven games and another fact of the matter is that they did have some very obvious things going against them.

If the Yankees hadn’t had their problem (i.e. slumping bats) and the Red Sox hadn’t had their problems (i.e. Lowe missing a start, not hitting with runners in scoring position and injuries to two members of their starting lineup), you don’t know that the Red Sox definitely wouldn’t have won six of seven games.

The Red Sox were never going to win 120 games, but they were getting amazing pitching performances for awhile. If only they hadn’t had some problems on the offensive side, then the games against the Yankees might not have been close enough for you to brush them aside with your own “if only.”

You are right about one thing, though — the two teams are just about back to where they started, and the division is certainly wide open. So, now the Red Sox need to take full advantage of the fact that they have an easier schedule over the next three weeks.

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