Let the hype flow freely. This is the kind of Yankees-Red Sox matchup that deserves it. The two teams are tied for first place with the best record in the American League, and the second-best record in all of baseball behind the Phillies, who also deserved all the hype, as it turns out. The Yankees enter this series as the underdog, because they're the road team, because it had been nearly a month since they had been in first place, and because they have gone just 1-8 against Boston thus far this series. However, the Yankees also enter this series hot, having won their last seven games against the Orioles and White Sox. Not that the Red Sox could be considered cold. Though they have split their first four games in August, they went an astonishing 20-6 (.769) in July.
Leading the Boston charge of late has been Dustin Pedroia, who since the calendar flipped to June has arguably been the best player in baseball, hitting .377/.454/.623 with 11 home runs and 10 stolen bases in 12 attempts over that span in addition to his typically outstanding play in the field. Pedroia's closest rival over that period has been the man who plays to his left, Adrian Gonzalez, who has hit .384/.457/.593 since Jun 1. Indeed, the Boston lineup is just crushing it right now. Rookie Josh Reddick seems to have solved right field by hitting .333/.382/.581 since being recalled in late June. Their catchers are hitting, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia leading the way with a .290/.358/.574 line and ten home runs dating back to a series between these two teams in mid-May. That leaves Carl Crawford and Marco Scutaro as the only Red Sox regulars who aren't crushing the ball right now. Indeed, that red-hot July was stoked by the Boston Bats, which pushed across a staggering 6.58 runs per game on the month.
The only team in baseball that can rival that kind of production is the Yankees. On the season, the Sox lead the majors with 5.47 runs scored per game. The Yankees are second at 5.40. To put that in proper context, third place is 5.02, fourth place is 4.81, and fifth place is 4.68. The American League average is 4.36 runs scored per game.
Put those two lineups in Fenway Park and you have to expect a shootout this weekend, but Jon Lester, CC Sabathia, and Josh Beckett, who pitch Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, respectively, might have something to say about that. Speaking of which, did you know the Yankees have allowed the second-fewest runs per game in the AL this year, sneaking past the Mariners with 3.83 R/G allowed? The Red Sox haven't fared quite as well, and that is what has kept the two teams close despite Boston's insane productivity at the plate.
That said, the primary difference between the two pitching staffs is that, with Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka out for the season, the Red Sox's rotation consists of Beckett, Lester, and prayer (the most recent being a prayer for deadline acquisition Erik Bedard's left arm to remain attached to his body for three more months), while the Yankees' prayers have largely been answered with strong seasons from non-roster invitees Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, the maturation of unheralded rookie Ivan Nova, and, now perhaps a strong return from Phil Hughes, who looked great in his last start. There's not much more certainty in the Yankee rotation than in the Red Sox's, but thus far the pinstriped quintet has delivered more quality pitching.
A comparison of the two bullpens results in a similar analysis, on paper they're very similar, but the Yankees have received the superior performances thus far despite the fact that retread Luis Ayala is fourth on the team in appearances and one of the men ahead of him is Boone LOOGan.
So, while these two teams are, as usual, very closely matched and very similarly constructed, the most compelling aspect of this matchup should be whether or not the Yankees' pitching can cool off the Red Sox's white-hot offense in what seems very likely to be a championship series preview.
Bartolo Colon (8-6, 3.60) vs. Jon Lester (11-4, 3.17), Friday, August 5, 7:10, YES/MLBN
Lester is making his third start since returning from a left latissumus dorsi strain which forced him to the disabled list in early July. In the first two, he posted a 2.03 ERA and struck out 14 men in 13 1/3 innings against just three walks. If you go back to before the injury, Lester has actually been on a strong run since the beginning of June, posting a 2.06 ERA with a 4.17 K/BB in his last eight starts (one of which was cut short by the lat strain). The first start of that run was a bare-minimum quality start win against the Yankees on June 7, his second of two starts against the Bombers this season. In the first, he gave up four runs in six innings. Given how well Lester has pitched against the Yankees in his career, both of those starts qualify as weak showings. Indeed, his 5.25 ERA against the Yankees thus far this season is by far his worst in any of the last four seasons.
In three starts since admitting to the media (and himself) that he was babying his tender hamstring, Colon has posted a 2.45 ERA while falling just one inning shy of three quality starts and striking out 19 men in 18 1/3 innings. He hasn't been as efficient as he was earlier in the season, but he's still giving the Yankees a good chance to win nearly every time out despite surpassing 100 innings pitched for the first time since 2005. Colon faced Boston twice earlier this season, making a 4 1/3-inning relief appearance against them in April, and turning in a quality start against them in May. Altogether he has posted a 2.61 ERA in 10 1/3 innings against Boston while striking out nine.
CC Sabathia (16-5, 2.55) vs. John Lackey (9-8, 6.23), Saturday, August 6, 4:10, FOX
John Lackey is the Red Sox's A.J. Burnett. He's signed to the same five-year, $82.5 million contract, and has thus far been similarly disappointing, frustrating, and downright infuriating. Actually, Lackey has been worse. He signed his contract a year later and a year younger than Burnett, was barely league average in Year One (Burnett, by comparison, posted a 114 ERA+ in his first season in pinstripes), and has been off-the-charts awful in Year Two. Burnett was brutal in his second year, as well, but his 5.26 ERA and 81 ERA+ last year looks good in comparison to Lackey's 6.23 and 66 ERA+ to this point this season. Since returning from an elbow strain that cost him much of May, however, Lackey has actually bettered last year's Burnett, posting a 5.15 ERA and a strong 4.33 K/BB.
Then again, as Mark Normandin and Matthew Kory pointed out to Jay, just because Lackey throws a lot of strikes, doesn't mean they are good strikes. Indeed, they argue that Lackey's problem is that he essentially throwing batting practice, laying in low-90s four-seamers and cutters, a mid-80s changup, and an 80-mile per hour curve, none of which are missing bats, and his one pitch which is, a high-80s slider, isn't missing many. That stands in sharp contrast to Burnett's method of mayhem, in which he prevents hitters from doing damage by doing it himself with walks and wild pitches, and his limited repertoire of, in Burnett's words, "heat, hook, heat, hook," and the occasional changeup. Still, Lackey and Burnett are simply taking different roads to the same destination. The only question is which team will be the first to recognize their big investment as a sunk cost.
I explored CC Sabathia's awesomeness earlier this week, though it's worth qualifying that here by pointing out that he has struggled against the Red Sox in three previous starts this season. Sabathia gutted out 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball against Boston back in April in a game in which he clearly didn't have his best stuff, but his two starts against the Sox since then have both seen him give up six runs in 6 2/3 innings with nearly identical pitching lines in both games (seven or eight hits, all runs earned, two or three walks, five or six strikeouts, one hit batsman in each game). Of course, Sabathia tends to be a different pitcher in the second half of the season. Last year, Sabathia's first two starts against Boston were bad, and his next two were very good, and in his last two starts against the Sox in 2009, Sabathia turned in 14 2/3 scoreless innings while striking out 17.
Freddy Garcia (10-7, 3.22) vs. Josh Beckett (9-4, 2.20), Sunday, August 7, 8:05 ESPN
Back in the late '80s and early '90s, Brett Saberhagen established a pattern of having a great season every other year. Josh Beckett seems to be establishing a similar pattern, but rather than every other year, it's every four. In 2003, Beckett posted a 138 ERA+ and pitched his Marlins to a world championship. Over the next three seasons, his ERA+ was 105. Then, in 2007, he posted an ERA+ of 145 and pitched the Red Sox to a world championship. Over the next three seasons, his ERA+ was 104. This year he is carrying an ERA+ of 187 and the Red Sox are tied for the best record in the American League. This year, however, he has had help from a minuscule .225 opponents average on balls in play, the lowest BABIP of any qualified major league pitcher this season. Still, in sharp contrast to Lackey, there's plenty of bad contact there: lots of pop-ups and a low line-drive rate. You can't get down to a .225 BABIP without luck playing a significant part. Indeed, in three starts against the Yankees this year, Beckett is 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA and just ten hits allowed in 21 innings. That's unsustainable dominance, though his 25 strikeouts against five walks and one homer in 21 innings in those three games suggest the correction, if it comes this season, won't be all that large.
Beckett is a bum draw for Freddy Garcia, who is having a fine season, but just can't measure up to a truly dominant ace like Beckett. Then again, it may not matter who Garcia is facing, as he's hardly distinguished himself against Boston this season, going 0-2 with a 10.13 ERA in two starts and one early-April relief appearance, walking six and allowing three home runs in just eight total innings across those three appearances. His last was the worst, and, at 1 2/3 innings, one of the shortest starts of his career. Joe Girardi only let Garcia allow four runs in that game before pulling him, and nearly got a win out of that early hook. If he has to do that again, don't be surprised to see Phil Hughes, who will be on full rest, come out of the pen to try to salvage the game.
Boston Red Sox
2011 Record: 68-42 (.618)
2011 Third-Order Record: 70-40 (.634)
Manager: Terry Francona
General Manager: Theo Epstein
Home Ballpark: Fenway Park
Bill James Park Indexes (2008-2010):
LH Avg-105; LH HR-88
RH Avg-103; RH HR-93
Who has replaced whom:
• Josh Reddick (mL) has replaced J.D. Drew (DL)
• Mike Aviles (KCR) has replaced Jed Lowrie (DL)
• Darnell McDonald (DL) has replaced Mike Cameron (FLA)
• Erik Bedard (SEA) has replaced Clay Buchholz (DL)
• Franklin Morales (DL) has replaced Bobby Jenks (DL)
• Randy Williams (mL) has replaced Tommy Hottovy (mL)
• Andrew Miller (mL) has replaced Drew Sutton (mL)
1B - Adrian Gonzalez (L)
2B - Dustin Pedroia (R)
SS - Marco Scutaro (R)
3B - Kevin Youkilis (R)
C - Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)
RF - Josh Reddick (L)
CF - Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
LF - Carl Crawford (L)
DH - David Ortiz (L)
S - Jason Varitek (C)
R - Mike Aviles (IF)
R - Darnell McDonald (OF)
R - Josh Beckett
R - Tim Wakefield
L - Erik Bedard
L - Jon Lester
R - John Lackey
R - Jon Papelbon
R - Daniel Bard
R - Matt Albers
R - Dan Wheeler
L - Franklin Morales
L - Randy Williams
R - Alfredo Aceves
L - Andrew Miller
RF - J.D. Drew (left shoulder impingement)
IF - Jed Lowrie (bruised nerve in left shoulder)
RHP - Bobby Jenks (left back tightness)
RHP - Clay Buccholz (stress fracture in lower back)
RHP - Daisuke Matsuzaka (Tommy John surgery)
LHP - Rich Hill (Tommy John surgery)
L - Jacoby Ellsbury (CF)
R - Dustin Pedroia (2B)
L - Adrian Gonzalez (1B)
R - Kevin Youkilis (3B)
L - David Ortiz (DH)
L - Carl Crawford (LF)
S - Jarrod Saltalamacchia (C)
L - Josh Reddick (RF)
R - Marco Scutaro (SS)