Thursday, August 17, 2006

Yankees - Red Sox Five Games in Four Days

From Bunker Hill to Faneuil Hall, the shouts of wary Red Sox Nationalists sound the alarm. "The Bombers are coming! The Bombers are coming!"
Not only that, but they'll stay awhile.

Although the five-game series kicking off Friday afternoon at Fenway Park between the Yankees and the Red Sox comes with pivotal undertones, this isn't quite the American League East apocalypse.

With New York arriving a game and a half up following its 12-2 loss Thursday afternoon to the Orioles, Boston would have to score a decisive 4-1 series win for there to be a change on top. And only a Yankees sweep would seriously dent the race; even with four wins, they'd move on with a bridgeable 4 1/2-game lead.

The last time the teams waged a five-game series in Boston -- July 1959 -- the Red Sox did the sweeping. In fact, they also ruled the most recent quintet between the teams, taking four in Yankee Stadium in July 1973.

That said, this series can set the tempo and mood for the season's remaining six weeks -- which will include another apocalyptic four-game get-together in the Bronx from Sept. 15-17.

New York's Joe Torre managed Thursday's game with this series in mind, sacrificing some bullpen arms in the blowout and pulling some regulars early.

Boston exhaled Wednesday after its 6-4 victory over Detroit saved the Red Sox from showing up at the wrong end of a sweep.

"We've got a lot of baseball left," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "We've got a chance, and if we play good baseball, we've got a chance to make a move on the team that's ahead of us."

Make a move is what the Sox did on Thursday -- adding Eric Hinske, Toronto's former American League Rookie of the Year, who matches up well with the Bombers' staff. Even this season, while losing a prominent role with the Blue Jays, Hinske is hitting .368 against the Yankees, with two homers and five RBIs.

Fans presumably are loading up on the chips, drinks and oxygen tanks for this rivalry-palooza, which arrives with enough angles to thrill a geometry professor.

New faces, old nemeses, pitching matchups perfect for the prime-time marquee.

"I've heard there is a lot of tension, a lot of energy between [these teams]. I'm looking forward to seeing it," said one of the Boston newcomers, Javy Lopez, who keeps picking fights with New York.

As an Atlanta Braves mainstay for a dozen years, Lopez got into it with the Mets. He doesn't expect his first Yankees weekend to disappoint him: "Playing the Yankees, everyone is pumped up. I'm going to have a chance to experience it."

The two nationally televised segments line up as aces' duels. Saturday afternoon on FOX, Randy Johnson takes on Josh Beckett in a meeting of 13-game winners. Sunday night, ESPN will spotlight Mike Mussina against Curt Schilling.

Before and after, Torre and Francona will think of something. They have all season, scheming, with the aid of their general managers, to keep the clubs in their customary positions.

The Yankees and Red Sox have been vulnerable, yet immovable. As has been their entire division -- returning to its familiar standing, 1998 through 2004.

Both teams have their unique assets -- Boston, defense and a feared two-headed offensive monster; New York, bullpen and the mentality to disrespect any deficit -- but share the same best quality.

Resourcefulness. They both have had to be creative to so impressively dodge the calamity invited by injuries. Both have persevered despite far less production than expected from significant quarters.

Tim Wakefield, Matt Clement and David Wells have made a total of 37 starts for the Red Sox, who have also had to be without projected closer Keith Foulke. And the Yankees, of course, got only 242 combined at-bats from Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield before their injuries.

Boston, however, is the only one which lost its captain. While Derek Jeter contends for a batting crown, the Red Sox have been reeling since Jason Varitek tore cartilage in his left knee.

Doug Mirabelli can call a good game, and Lopez's bat is starting to make noise. But the composite still doesn't equal a Varitek, without whom the Red Sox are 6-9.

Yet -- here they both are. Another late-summer clash with first place at stake. In fact, considering all that has gone down in the intervening 10 weeks, it is flabbergasting how little has changed since they last met.

Following Boston's 9-3 victory at Yankee Stadium on June 8, they went their separate ways with the Bombers (35-23) a half-game ahead of the Red Sox (34-23).

They have each won 35 during their separate vacations, the growth in New York's lead attributable to two fewer losses.

While the Yankees' Brian Cashman was more proactive at the non-waiver trading deadline, landing outfielder Bobby Abreu and right-hander Cory Lidle in a deal with the Phillies and Craig Wilson from the Pirates, both teams have dealt with their crises with unusual patience.

Boston general manager Theo Epstein's gamble that his incumbent horses can pull the load was dramatized by developments in late June. While Roger Clemens, at one point rumored headed back to Boston, prepared to rejoin Houston and A.J. Burnett rejoined Toronto, Epstein added a guy (Jason Johnson) who was 1-8 in his last 10 starts.

Epstein had a chance to do much more, but chose to protect the club's future, even at the possible expense of the present.

Johnson, still winless in five starts for the Red Sox, now will launch this series, meeting Chien-Ming Wang on Friday afternoon. Sidney Ponson takes on Jon Lester in the 8:05 pm ET nightcap of the first day-night doubleheader in Boston between these teams since July 31, 1976.

The Red Sox swept that bicentennial twin bill. But all the brooms figure to stay in the closet this weekend. Given their recent history, these teams will probably find a way to split five games.

They've split 10 so far this season. Including their two memorable postseason series, they have played 81 times since the start of the 2003 season and Boston has the slimmest (41-40) edge.

That balance has endured throughout countless changes in the casts. Because Boston and New York, the cities and their citizens, always have the lead.

If you are a fan, seeing these games is as good as it gets.

If you are a player, it gets better, because you get to feel them.

"I've heard it's exciting," Abreu said. "You want to be involved in that. It's an opportunity that may not come often."

Or, come five times in 75 hours. Check the snacks, the fridge and the indoor plumbing.

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BallHype: hype it up! Posted by Steve Kenul at 8:09 PM


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