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When one 0-3 start is not like the other
Lovers of parity, believers in the East Coast bias and haters of the rich and powerful enjoyed a splendid first weekend of baseball.
It last happened in 1966, according to STATS LLC, at the start of Roger Maris’ final season with the Yankees. This was before Billy Martin managed a game in the major leagues, before Carlton Fisk put on a Red Sox uniform, more than a decade before the Bucky Dent Game.
Fortunately, both fan bases are known for their patience and understanding. Surely, every television set in Boston and New York clicked off quietly Sunday. Disappointment yielded to perspective. “Ah well,” the faithful said. “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.”
Yes, both teams played difficult opponents on the road. The Tigers’ relentless lineup — powered by the MVP-caliber wheelhouse of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder — rallied for two last-at-bat wins against Boston. The Rays, coming off three postseason berths in four years, showed in sweeping the Yankees that they may be even deeper now.
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But let’s forget the small-sample size provisos. These were real games with real ramifications. And the Red Sox have the most to worry about, with profound pitching concerns and a lightning-rod manager who abetted two walk-off losses.
The Yankees were unable to coax a quality start from their supposedly revamped rotation, at a time when pitchers generally are ahead of hitters. But there was something more tolerable about the way they were swept. Tampa Bay beat them by scores of 7-6, 8-6 and 3-0. If Mariano Rivera had converted a save opportunity in the opener, the weekend would have had a much different feel.
Rivera is 42. He has hinted at retirement following the season. As long as he’s healthy, the Yankees know Rivera will be their closer the next time they have a ninth-inning lead.
The Red Sox can’t say the same thing about Alfredo Aceves, Mark Melancon or anyone else. Aceves and Melancon blew save opportunities in Sunday’s ghastly 13-12 loss — and neither came on an excuse-me, broken-bat blooper. Each coughed up three runs — Aceves in the ninth, Melancon in the decisive 11th.
Andrew Bailey was supposed to be the closer, but he will be out until midseason after undergoing thumb surgery. Boston hasn’t had such uncertainty surrounding its bullpen since 2003, the year of Theo Epstein’s ill-fated closer-by-committee endeavor. That season ended at Yankee Stadium, with Grady Little lacking a comfortable option behind Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.
So far, the ’12 Red Sox look nothing like a team that could reach the playoffs — let alone win a series. The Boston pitching staff surrendered 23 runs in the last two games. Starters Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, who must pitch well for the Red Sox to contend, allowed a combined 14 earned runs in 8 2/3 innings. Any assessment of Boston’s pitching woes must begin there. In defense of new manager Bobby Valentine, there’s only so much a manager can do when his starters are unable to provide six credible innings.
However, Valentine is partially responsible for the bullpen chaos. He yanked Melancon only three hitters into his Red Sox debut Thursday, after back-to-back one-out singles with the score tied. The move amounted to a no-confidence vote from Valentine in Game 1. So it was no surprise Melancon pitched tight Sunday, allowing Alex Avila’s walk-off home run.
As I wrote last week, Aceves was the right person for Valentine to tab as Boston’s fill-in closer. But now his confidence might be shaken, after Thursday’s hasty appearance and Sunday’s debacle. Daniel Bard, who will make his first major league start Tuesday, is the in-case-of-emergency closer. It might be time to break the glass. April is far too early to trade for a reliable replacement.
Sunday’s dozen runs were a sign of the lineup’s potential, but it’s worth monitoring the performance of Kevin Youkilis early this season. He went 0-for-8 in the first two games, and Valentine benched him Sunday. Youkilis is coming off sports hernia surgery and experienced back stiffness late in spring training. He’s 33. Are his best days behind him?
Speaking of thirtysomething regulars, Yankees manager Joe Girardi used Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher at designated hitter over the past two days. Girardi wanted to give them half-days off the artificial surface at Tropicana Field. But their replacements at shortstop and in right field — Eduardo Nuñez and Raul Ibañez, respectively — made blunders that led to Tampa Bay runs.
Yankees optimists will point out their last 0-3 start was in 1998, when they won 114 games and the World Series.
Red Sox optimists — if there are any left — will say the team started 0-6 last year but moved into first place by the end of May.
Sure, both teams have 98.1 percent of their schedule to play. But when pitching is the problem, worry is always the appropriate response. Money can’t buy you outs.