Rivals in Exile: May Ramblings

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.

Boston Red Sox: 19-12
New York Yankees: 18-13

Ben Jacobs: I’ve got to admit, for a couple of days there I actually felt like the Red Sox were really in that death spiral you joked about last week. But then Boston bounced back to split the series in Cleveland and Friday’s classic win against the Royals combined with the Yankees losing to Seattle pushed Boston’s lead back to two games.

However, if anybody needed any proof that it’s way too early in the season to bother looking at the standings, they should have gotten it over the last week or so. After Boston dominated the Yankees in their first seven games against each other, the Red Sox had a 4.5-game lead. The teams each swept their next series to maintain that differential, but then the Red Sox lost five in a row while the Yankees won another five straight so that the two teams were tied for a couple days at 15-11 and then 16-11.

So, I won’t really care too much about what the standings look like until either the All-Star break gets here or one of the two teams gets more than five games ahead of the other. What I do care about is that the Red Sox have looked pretty darn good so far this season.

Yeah, they had that five-game losing streak in there where they played some ugly ball, but they also got a bit unlucky in that stretch. And Pedro Martinez bounced back nicely in his last start, the offense has started to get things going a little and the bullpen has continued to simply be excellent.

All of which is very good, because who knows when the Red Sox will get Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon back? Both of them are working hard to get back in the lineup and could come back within the next couple weeks, but there’s a very real possibility that neither of them will play their first major-league game of the season until the calendar says June.

All of which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way, to one of my favorite things about this young season — the remaking of Manny Ramirez. Ramirez has always been a great hitter, and he’s done nothing to shake that reputation early this season. After going 3-for-4 in Friday’s win, Ramirez was hitting .374/.447/.626 with seven homers and 19 RBIs.

I’ve always been a big fan of Ramirez, and I thought he got a bum rap from people who called him surly or a loafer or whatever else you might have heard about him. He always seemed like a big goofball, and I wondered why he didn’t show everybody how much fun he had playing baseball.

Well, that’s exactly what he’s done this year. He’s gone from not talking to the media last year to being the clubhouse spokesman and team jokester this year. He’s always laughing and having a good time — with teammates, with fans and even with the media now. He even started his own web site — MannyRamirez.com — to help people get to know him.

When a player who you absolutely love watching play the game figures out how to put everything in balance and take complete joy in everything about his situation, well, that’s just a beautiful thing. Like I said before, I’ll get pumped up about the back-and-forth, ebb-and-flow of Boston’s race against the Yankees and the number that separates the two teams later.

For now, I’m just enjoying the Manny Ramirez show. So far, every episode this season’s been a hit. He’s carrying the team with his bat, relaxing the team with his attittude and probably leading the league in number of times mentioned as an early MVP candidate.

Of course, I’ll understand if you don’t want to wax poetic about Manny Ramirez, so go ahead and gloat about how quickly the Yankees bounced back from their big deficit in the standings. I’ll just be sitting here watching the replays of Manny’s mad dash around the bases Friday night.

Larry Mahnken: I have no intention of gloating, I’m just happy that the Yankees are showing life.

Part of the Yankees’ streak had to have something to do with running into a cold Oakland team, just like I think part of Boston’s good start had to do with running into cold New York and Toronto teams. The Yankees won eight straight, but they had to come from behind late three times. It’s nice that they could do that, but when they’re really feeling it, they shouldn’t have to come back for nearly half their wins.

I am feeling more confident about this Yankees team right now than I have felt about any Yankees team since the late 90s, though. There’s kind of an easy confidence I have when I’m watching the ballgame, almost that if they fall beind, they’ll win, and if they lose, they’ll just win the next day. I know you get pretty upset about losses, too, so you can understand how great a feeling that has to be. I can just sit back and enjoy the game, win or lose.

But there’s plenty to still be worried about with the Yankees; they’ve lost Jorge DePaula, Travis Lee and Steve Karsay for the year, and while those aren’t losses that directly hurt the team, they could have an enormous impact on the team if someone important gets hurt. Jose Contreras‘ struggles got him sent down to the minors, and put Donovan Osborne in the rotation. Getting sent down helped Contreras out last year, but he was a relief pitcher then, so it wasn’t hurting the rotation. Osborne’s pitched okay out of the bullpen, but it remains to be seen if he can be a passable starter.

Derek Jeter broke out of his hitless streak last week, but it looks like he’s still slumping badly. I have no idea what could be wrong with him, but it’s getting very close to being time to worry. Bernie Williams‘s near that point, too. Gary Sheffield‘s been good but not great, but I think he’ll break out really soon.

After the Yankees caught the Red Sox, I stopped scoreboard watching, and I don’t fully understand why everyone else seems to think it matters yet. As long as the Yankees take care of their own business, they’ll stay at or near the top of the standings — Boston has to lose sometime. And as long as they make the playoffs, what Boston does during the regular season isn’t really that important.

Though that five-game losing streak was pretty sweet.

BJ: The feeling you described about this year’s Yankees is pretty much how I felt about the Red Sox all of last season. I’ve felt that way at times this year, but most vividly on Friday night when the Red Sox went into the ninth inning trailing 6-4. I just had a feeling they’d come back and win the game.

That’s why Boston’s five-game losing streak was more of a system shock than anything else. I obviously don’t expect the Red Sox to win every game, but I never expect them to lose a particular game either. When they blow a lead or don’t make that late comeback, it gnaws at me and it gets worse when they don’t get right up off the mat the next day or the day after that.

Now that the losing streak is four wins back in the rearview mirror, however, I think I can safely say that this team isn’t going to have many more extended losing streaks this season. The pitching’s just too good and the offense is going to get better.

Meanwhile, your comment about New York’s minor injuries got me thinking. Some Red Sox fans have been complaining this season about how bad the Boston bench is. However, people need to remember that half of what was supposed to be the bench has to start every game until Garciaparra and Nixon return.

The fact that the Red Sox have been able to win more than 60% of their games so far without two members of their starting lineup shows that they have a very deep team that is going to be difficult to derail even if injuries are a problem throughout the season.

The Yankees have yet to suffer a major injury, but as you mentioned, they now have no depth. Mussina’s start Saturday night had to be encouraging to Yankees fans everywhere, but even if he’s back, the Yankees only have three reliable starting pitchers. If something happens to one of them, it would be a big blow.

The offense is scary, but they’re already carrying one bad hitter and two struggling hitters in most games. If Jeter and Williams don’t turn things around and Giambi or Sheffield (or A-Rod or Posada) gets hurt, you’re looking at a lineup with three great hitters, an average hitter or two and a bunch of easy outs.

The only place where depth doesn’t appear to be a potential problem is in the bullpen, as Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill all look very good.

Speaking of Jeter, do you think he’s hurt? He dislocated his shoulder last spring, he ruptured a tendon in his thumb last fall and he got hit by a pitch on the hand this spring. There are any number of things that could still be affecting him, and I find it hard to believe that he’s capable of hitting this poorly for this long if he’s completely healthy.

LM: Man, I don’t know. Maybe he’s lost some bat speed, maybe he’s not seeing the ball well, or maybe a witch doctor in South America has put a hex on him. I’m lost for explanations. He hit the game-tying HR yesterday, but one game doesn’t end a slump.

Anyway, it’s likely they’ll get a passable second baseman at some point during the season — not Vidro or anyone like that, but someone who can keep the line moving, and play acceptable defense. Hideki Matsui‘s been much better this season than he was last season and if he has a streak like he had last June, he could actually be a worthy All-Star this year (you know he’ll be starting either way). A lineup with three great hitters and a couple of good hitters will never be a problem, even if the Yankees have to go into the postseason with it. And three reliable pitchers, that’s all you need in the playoffs.

I’m feeling really good. The Yankees are 17-7 against teams other than Boston, and the Red Sox are 13-11 against teams other than the Yankees. I thought Boston was supposed to have the easier schedule, Ben?

BJ: Well, there are two weeks left in the period during which I thought Boston would have a much easier schedule, but you’re certainly right that the Red Sox haven’t taken advantage of the schedule if it has been easier. My only excuse is that I didn’t expect Oakland to completely roll over for the Yankees.

Really, I think we both have reason to feel good about our teams. They’ve both shown some chinks in the armor, but they really haven’t given me any reason to believe that they won’t ultimately be the two best teams in the American League.

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