Every once in a while, you run into a stretch of the schedule that feels bigger, sounds louder, reaches up and pulls you right out of your midseason haze. The Red Sox are in town for three nights against the Yankees and if ever there was a time to pay attention to these two AL East powerhouses, it’s now.
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Not only are they running 1-2 in the standings (not to mention first and second in the league in run production), the Bombers and Sox are both on hot streaks. Boston just finished a sweep of the Athletics, and the Yankees won six of their last seven games on the West Coast.
What’s not to love about a showdown that will feature a classic pitcher’s duel (Josh Beckett against CC Sabathia on Thursday), a march toward history (Derek Jeter is within 14 hits of 3,000 for his career) and payback (Boston swept the Yankees at the Stadium a month ago).
Actually, the Bombers are in for an extended litmus test: The Indians and Rangers follow the Red Sox into the Bronx, which means we’ll know more about the Yankees — and the state of the American League — in about 10 days.
The results could leave only one team standing. Or, maybe nothing gets settled and we’re left with what the standings reveal today, that we’re living in Bud Selig’s world of parity. The field is awash in good-but-not-great teams unable to separate themselves from the working class-types puttering along at .500.
No one is playing better than .600 ball right now, not even the Red Sox, whom Yankee general manager Brian Cashman unashamedly called “the favorites” back in spring training. Turns out the Sox have — or had — their deficiencies, just like the Yankees. This series will be a parade of strengths and weaknesses; who cares if they cancel each other out?
After all, it’s the Yankees and Red Sox, waging that thousand-year war that never gets old. Here’s a look at the weapons (and wounds) the two sides are bringing to the battle this week:
WEAPON: Carl Crawford.
Crawford was an automatic out in April and early May, such an early free-agent bust that the Mets were using his contract as a way to shame Jose Reyes. No more. Although Crawford’s average is still a sub-par .248, his recent hot streak poses a direct threat to the Yankees. He’s 17 for 45 (.378) in the past two weeks, prompting Terry Francona to move Crawford up to No. 6 in the lineup.
WOUND: Red Sox bullpen
That 4.26 ERA ranks 11th in the American League, and, if you’re into such metrics, the Sox’ relievers’ DIP (defense independent percentage) is second to last. Jonathan Papelbon has the best strikeout to innings ratio among AL closers, but that 4.32 ERA indicates something’s wrong. Maybe it’s that 27.3 percentage of batted balls that are categorized as line drives this year, 10 points higher than last year and a career worst.
WEAPON: Yankees’ home-run quotient.
The Bombers lead the AL in runs and HRs, so there’s your scouting report. If you want to keep the Yankees quiet, keep the fly balls in the ballpark, because they’re less likely to create runs otherwise.
Yankee Stadium isn’t quite the launching pad it was in 2009 and 2010. Currently, it’s ranked only 13th in major league park factor for home runs, but the Bombers nevertheless feel comfortable. They’re second in the AL in HRs at home; only the Rangers have hit more.
WOUND: Yankees’ DH, right field, shortstop
Jorge Posada is batting only .178, and it’s clear time is running out not just on his career, but significant playing time. It’s logical to assume Joe Girardi will marginalize the once-great catcher altogether, and it’s anyone’s guess how turbulent the phasing out process will be.
Meanwhile, the Yankees admit they’re perplexed about Nick Swisher’s lack of production. His BABIP (batting average of balls in play) is a mere .250, the second-worst of his career, down 85 points from 2010. That’s why you keep hearing persistent rumors of a Carlos Beltran trade with the Mets.
As for Jeter, it’s true he improved in May, hitting .274, a 24-point spike from March/April. The march to 3,000, which should come to a crescendo at some point on this homestand, will be a full-blown , well-earned coronation. But once the pageantry is over, Girardi may well find it easier to bat Jeter lower in the order.
Currently, Jeter is only seventh among the Yankee starters in on-base percentage. He’s certainly not the problem that Posada is, but at a soft .260, hitting 66.8 percent of batted balls on the ground (a career worst), Jeter is making it tough for Girardi to justify a long-term commitment in the leadoff spot.
WEAPON: Josh Beckett
The big right-hander is leading the American League with a 2.01 ERA and hasn’t allowed a run in 14 innings against the Yankees this year. Beckett has provided cover for John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and if you think the Yankees weren’t worried about facing him on Thursday night, ask yourself: why else would Girardi have bumped Ivan Nova back to Friday, except to line up CC Sabathia for the showdown?
WOUND: Dustin Pedroia
Remember when there was a legitimate debate over who was the American League’s best second baseman? Pedroia is nowhere close to Robinson Cano this year, batting an uncharacteristic .244, with a 16.9 percent strikeout ratio that’s more than double his ratio in 2008, the year he won the AL’s Most Valuable Player Award.
Pedroia is swinging as hard as ever, but his contact ratio is under 90 percent for the first time in his career.
WEAPON: Bartolo Colon
OK, he won’t pitch in this series, but we couldn’t help ourselves. The man who just happens to be shaped like a watermelon has become the hardest thrower among Yankee starters.
Cashman is trying not to get his hopes up.
“I can’t sit here and tell you how Bartolo is going to be pitching later on this summer," he said. "It’s been a long time since he’s been this good."
But at this rate, hitting 96 on the gun, averaging almost a strikeout an inning, Colon is going to be a factor in September and probably October, too.
WOUND: Alex Rodriguez’s power.
The Yankees aren’t really complaining, since Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson have picked up the slack. But Rodriguez is hardly at elite levels anymore: His 15.9 percent fly ball/home run ratio is the lowest of his career. A-Rod can still hit the ball a million miles when he connects properly, as he did Friday night in Anaheim, helping the Yankees to a 3-2 win. But those exhibitions just don’t occur as often anymore.