Monday, April 23, 2007

The Standells

Games 16 and 17 – Red Sox

Red Sox 7, Yankees 5
Red Sox 7, Yankees 6
Record: 12-5

So what did we learn in the first chapter of the most recent renewal of ancient hostilities (or whatever treacly slogan ESPN was using last night)? Good pitching is capable of slowing down really, really good hitting – but not stopping it. Far more importantly in this little sample, solid hitting prevails against mediocre to poor pitching.

Just as I was reaching the brink of tantrum-throwing frustration, Sox bats proved the latter of those truisms emphatically. The Sox trailed, 3-0, with 2 outs and the bases empty in the bottom of the third after squandering golden opportunities in each of the first 2 innings by missing eminently hittable pitches from Yankee rookie Chase Wright. Manny Ramirez salvaged a little dignity with a blast over the Monster seats in deep left, and before I settled back down, J.D. Drew followed him with a mammoth shot to deepest right-center. Mike Lowell and his MLC-maligned bat speed made it back-to-back-to-back longballs with a laser over the Monster, and as I scrambled to my computer to post something pithy, Jason Varitek hammered another Wright offering over the wall in left. 10 pitches, 4 homers, a new club record for consecutive round-trippers, and a very, very different ballgame. Joe Torre lifted Wright after the inning, mostly to save his psyche, and the crucial difference between the two teams in this series stood in stark relief.

Sox starters went 7, 6 2/3, and 7 innings over the series’ three games, compared to 6 1/3, 4 1/3, and 3 for their Yankee counterparts. The Sox bullpen gave up 1 run and 4 hits in their 6 1/3 innings, while the Yankees’ already overworked relievers allowed 8 runs on 15 hits over 12 frames. Even as the Sox’ starters posted relatively mediocre runs-against numbers (16 total in the series), their ability to eat innings and keep the New York lineup from exploding was the signal difference in the outcome.

Josh Beckett’s performance on Saturday offered yet another encouraging sign that the 2007 model has been vastly upgraded. After 2 innings, Beckett had allowed 4 runs. After 6 innings, still 4 runs. He shook off a rocky beginning, kept his head, and mowed down Yankee after Yankee to keep the Sox in the game. Last year, the Yanks would’ve plated 9 runs in the first 3 innings and laughed their way to momentum-shifting victory.

Daisuke Matsuzaka has now officially passed all the major early-season hurdles, like Beckett keeping the Sox in the game despite less than terrific command. Matsuzaka missed his spots in a few critical situations in the process of allowing 6 earned runs in 7 innings of work, but he still went 7 (and started the 8th before being lifted). Now that the hype machine has finished its Sherman-esque march through the season’s first month and run out of fuel, I think Matsuzaka will have an opportunity to breathe a bit. After 4 starts, it seems reasonable to expect 200+ innings at a sub-4.30 ERA from the highly-touted righty, and that’d make him one of the league’s preeminent no. 3 starters.

While the Sox starting pitching was just effective enough, the bullpen leaves this series hoisting the hero’s mantle. From Hideki Okajima’s coming-out party (Jason Giambi will have nightmares about Okajima for a few days), to Brendan Donnelly’s clutch efforts with the bases loaded last night, to Jonathan Papelbon’s smoke, the Sox’ pen was dazzling against the league’s best bats. Through the season’s first 17 games, the Sox are last in the league in bullpen innings pitched, first in bullpen ERA, and second in bullpen batting average against. Those last two stats are clearly correlated to the first, for those of you with limited math skills.

The Sox are taking advantage of their opportunities in the season’s early weeks, making hay while the haymaking’s good. The Yankees have been devastated by injuries to their pitching staff and despite the fact that I don’t think their staff is all that great, it’s certainly better than the has-beens and never-weres taking the mound in this series. More importantly, the Yankees staff doesn’t have to be great for them to be successful – it just needs to get them deeper into games. The Yankee bullpen is on pace for a record number of innings pitched, a stat that even their hyper-muscular offensive attack will have a problem overcoming. Even so, it says here that the Yankees will be in the race all season, so you’ll excuse me if I get a little excited about sweeping them in Fenway for the first time in 17 years.

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