Series Preview: Yankees @ Red Sox III

CC Sabathia and the Yankees have something to prove at Fenway Park this week. (AP)

The question has been posed to me several times, If the Yankees and Red Sox are both shoo-ins to make the playoffs, and the primary focus of both is thus getting their players healthy and their roster and rotation sorted out for the postseason, why should we care about the AL East race or even about the rest of the regular season, for that matter. Well, in a practical sense, the teams' Division Series opponents and homefield advantage in a potential American League Championship Series between the two teams will be decided by the divisional race, but there seems to be a decent chance that one team will be the loser in each of those contests.

Given how the standings have shaped up for a while now, the division winner would have homefield advantage in the ALCS, but would also have to face the Tigers and Justin Verlander in a best three-out-of-five series to get there. Meanwhile, neither team has show a particularly large home/road split this season. The Yankees have been just a game and a half better at home, having lost the same number of games home and away but having won three more at home, while the Red Sox have actually been a game and a half better on the road. That's not a meaningful split, but one could still argue that Boston would be better off as the Wild Card as their first-round opponent would be the Rangers, a team that lacks a dominant, potentially series-changing ace like Verlander, and would be hurt less by lacking home field advantage in the ALCS.

Then again, the Yankees have fared better against the Rangers this season (7-2), while the Red Sox have fared better against Detroit (5-1), both going 3-4 against the other opponent, so perhaps both teams would be better off the way things are, with the Red Sox leading the division, as they are now by two games over the Yankees, who arrive at Fenway park for a three-game set tonight. These teams have six head-to-head games remaining on the schedule, these three, then three more in the Bronx in the penultimate series of the season. It seems likely the divisional race will go down to that last series and possibly even beyond, but like the Yankees battle with the Rays last year, there won't be a ton of drama attached.

Still, I think the rest of the regular season is worth watching for Yankee fans because how their team performs over the next month will inform their expectations for October, and how they play the Red Sox in those final six head-to-head matchups could have significant carry over for a potential ALCS. You probably don't need to be reminded, but the Yankees are just 2-10 against Boston this season. At this point, I think they need to prove to themselves as much as anyone else that they can beat their age-old rivals.

The good news is that, despite the Yankees recent skid against the worst teams in the West and East (going 2-4 against the O's and A's over the past week), they have the hot bats at the plate at the moment, as I wrote for SI.com in the wake of the Yankees' triple-grand-slam outburst against the A's on Friday:

The Red Sox actually averaged 6.33 runs per game in June and July, but their pace has slowed considerably in August. One needn't look hard to see why. Kevin Youkilis hit the disabled list last week with a sore lower back. David Ortiz missed nine games with a sore heel. Most Valuable Player candidates Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia have cooled off, Gonzalez hitting .308/.375/.538 in August compared to .388/.463/.602 the previous two months, Pedroia .281/.333/.360 compared to .379/.461/.646. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and rookie right fielder Josh Reddick have gone ice cold, Salty hitting a mere .211/.237/.509 in August compared to .304/.373/.545 the previous two months, Reddick hitting .212/.257/.333 in August compared to .324/.373/.571 from his June 19 recall through the end of July. That's two thirds of the Boston lineup on the downswing, and the other third includes the team's two weakest hitters this season, shortstop Marco Scutaro and $142 million seventh-place hitter Carl Crawford.

The Yankees, meanwhile, were already having their hottest month of the year, averaging 5.9 runs a game in August before Thursday's outburst boosted that number to 6.64. Granderson is having the best month of an MVP-worthy season, hitting .321/.452/.714 with eight home runs, 25 RBIs and 25 runs scored. Martin, who had homered just once in the previous two months, reportedly fixed a mechanical flaw in his swing and has hit .318/.346/.697 with seven home runs in August, including two in Thursday's onslaught. Cano, who hit the first of Thursday's three grand slams, has also perked up in August, hitting .344/.378/.644 with six home runs. Platoon righty Andruw Jones got a mechanical tip from his mom coming out of the All-Star break and has hit .354/.483/.771 since with six home runs, including a solo shot in his only at-bat as a late-game sub on Thursday. Over a much larger sample, Derek Jeter, who looked finished throughout 2010 and the first half of this season, has hit .358/.411/.480 since coming off the disabled list in early July, raising his season average 39 points and briefly passing .300 on Thursday. On top of all of that, the Yankees just got Alex Rodriguez back from meniscus surgery and a jammed thumb (he went 2-for-4 on Thursday). And I haven't even mentioned Mark Teixeira, who is two off the major league lead in home runs and also has six on the month.

Not that those stats were all compiled prior to this past weekend's hurricane-shortened series, which brought two more Granderson homers in addition to shots by Cano, Jones, and three by Nick Swisher. Then again, Ortiz has gone 11-for-20 with seven extra-base hits, three of them homers, since returning from his heel injury (that's a .550/.571/1.200 line over his last five games), and Pedroia went 5-for-10 with a double and a homer in the Sox's weekend series against the A's.

As for the Yankee pitching, however, only the brave need read on . . .

CC Sabathia (17-7, 2.99) vs. John Lackey (12-9, 5.98), Tuesday, August 30, 7:10, Ch. 9/MLBN

Sabathia has faced the Red Sox four times this season, losing each time. The first loss was due to a lack of run and bullpen support, the latter necessitated by his failing to complete the sixth inning. In each of the last three, however, he came by the loss more honestly, allowing at least six runs each time out for a combined ERA of 8.84. Sabathia followed that last disaster in Boston by allowing five solo home runs to the Rays, but his two starts since then have been quality, and his strikeout and walk rates this month have been outstanding (35 Ks in 36 1/3 innings against just three walks). Still, if Sabathia had simply gone 2-2 against the Sox in those first four starts, the Yankees would be in first place right now. Even more importantly, unless Sabathia can beat Boston, the Yankees have little hope of winning an ALCS matchup against the Red Sox. That makes this game far and away the most important of the series.

Lackey has gone 7-1 with a 4.11 ERA since July 9. The Boston offense and bullpen have helped out greatly with the record, but the ERA is solidly league average and Lackey has thrown at least 5 2/3 innings in each of the nine starts in that span, averaging 6 1/3 frames per start, mixing in a 3.54 K/BB. That's a solid mid-rotation starter and a huge improvement over Lackey's early-season work. Included in that recent run of dependability was a quality start win against Sabathia and the Yankees on August 6.

Phil Hughes (4-4, 6.46) vs. Josh Beckett (11-5, 2.42), Wednesday, August 31, 7:10, YES/ESPN

Hughes has given up seven runs in 2 1/3 innings against the Red Sox this season (two in an April start, the third in an early-August relief appearance that resulted in an extra-inning loss). In his last start, he gave up six runs in 2 2/3 innings against the A's. I'm not sure either of those things tells us what to expect in this game. Despite getting singled to death his last time out (he walked no one and gave up just two extra-base hits, neither a homer), he struck out five men in 2 2/3 innings, three of them swinging, and walked no one. That seems like a good thing. In fact, he has struck out 7.2 men per nine innings over his last three starts and at least a man per inning in two of his last three starts. Maybe I'm clutching at positives. I really can't tell with Hughes right now. He has a 4.53 ERA in eight starts since coming off the DL with five quality starts, one that just missed, and two disasters. That's better than A.J. Burnett, but that's not a high bar to clear.

Beckett has been as good against the Yankees in four starts this season as Sabathia has been bad against Boston. In those four starts, Beckett has gone 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA while striking out 10 men per nine innings and posting a 0.85 WHIP. The one no-decision came in the game which Hughes lost in extra-innings. Beckett allowed just one run in six innings in that one, but the game was tied 2-2 after nine.

A.J. Burnett (9-11, 5.31) vs. TBD, Thursday, September 1, 7:10, YES/MLBN

Part of me looks at the above and thinks, "hmmm, September 1 . . . could Burnett's name be a place-holder for a September call-up?" Then I think, "not against the Red Sox." The Yankees have shown what's probably an appropriate reluctance to have one of their farmhands make his major league debut in a high-pressure situation like a late-season Red Sox series in Boston, so Burnett very likely really is going to start this game, though it seems clear that the Yankees, finally, have seen enough. When asked after Burnett's latest stinker if Burnett would remain in the rotation, Joe Girardi couldn't mount a stronger endorsement than, "with all these double-headers, we gotta play games. We need six men." Burnett posted an 11.91 ERA in five August starts and now has a 5.31 ERA on the season, a mark five ticks worse than his ERA of a year ago.

The Red Sox will counter Burnett with either Tim Wakefield or Andrew Miller. Wakefield has unsuccessfully attempted to pick up his 200th win six times already. The first three of those were quality starts in which he pitched in bad luck, two of which were no-decisions and one of which saw the Sox score just one run for him in a 3-1 loss. Things have gone downhill from there, however, as he has posted a 6.23 ERA in his last three starts, the last of which saw him allow eight runs (albeit just four earned) in four innings against those rock 'em sock 'em A's. On the season he's 6-6 with a 5.14 ERA in 19 starts. Miller posted a 5.36 ERA in eight starts in June and July before surrendering his rotation spot to the newly-acquired Erik Bedard. With the Sox temporarily expanding to a six-man rotation, in late August, he has gone 2-0 with a 0.77 ERA in two more recent starts.

Boston Red Sox

2011 Record: 82-51 (.617)
2011 Third-Order Record: 85-48 (.636)

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:

• Jed Lowrie (DL) has replaced Kevin Youkilis (DL)
• Michael Bowden (mL) has replaced Randy Williams (mL)

25-man Roster:

1B - Adrian Gonzalez (L)
2B - Dustin Pedroia (R)
SS - Marco Scutaro (R)
3B - Jed Lowrie (S)
C - Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)
RF - Josh Reddick (L)
CF - Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
LF - Carl Crawford (L)
DH - David Ortiz (L)

Bench:

S - Jason Varitek (C)
R - Mike Aviles (IF)
R - Darnell McDonald (OF)

Rotation:

R - Josh Beckett
R - Tim Wakefield
L - Andrew Miller
L - Erik Bedard
L - Jon Lester
R - John Lackey

Bullpen:

R - Jon Papelbon
R - Daniel Bard
R - Matt Albers
R - Dan Wheeler
L - Franklin Morales
R - Alfredo Aceves
R - Michael Bowden

15-day DL:

3B - Kevin Youkilis (sore back)
RF - J.D. Drew (left shoulder impingement)
RHP - Bobby Jenks (left back tightness)

60-day DL:

RHP - Clay Buccholz (stress fracture in lower back)
RHP - Daisuke Matsuzaka (Tommy John surgery)
LHP - Rich Hill (Tommy John surgery)

Typical Lineup:

L - Jacoby Ellsbury (CF)
R - Marco Scutaro (SS)
L - Adrian Gonzalez (1B)
R - Dustin Pedroia (2B)
L - David Ortiz (DH)
S - Jed Lowrie (3B)
L - Carl Crawford (LF)
S - Jarrod Saltalamacchia (C)
L - Josh Reddick (RF)

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