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Edgy approach

Yankees seem to have upper hand in matchup

Starting pitchers:

In 1999, the Red Sox were forced to throw lefthander Kent Mercker, an eight-game winner in the regular season, against the Yankees in the ALCS opener because they'd burned their top two starters, Pedro Martinez and Bret Saberhagen, in their Division Series clincher against the Indians, Martinez making his epic, six-inning, no-hit appearance.

This time, they burned out their top two starters, Martinez and Derek Lowe, to close out their Division Series clincher against the A's, but can open the ALCS against the Yankees with Tim Wakefield, who last month in Yankee Stadium threw seven shutout innings, allowing just four hits. Wakefield, left off the Sox ALCS roster in '99, also beat Roger Clemens in May to temporarily deny him his 300th career win.

Martinez is only 9-8 against the Yankees and failed to hold a three-run lead for only the second time in his career in a September loss. But while he may no longer be capable of duplicating the legendary 17-strikeout one-hitter he threw against the Bombers in 1999, he has history on his side in a reprise of his Game 3 matchup in '99 against the Rocket, which was billed as the Game of the Century but turned into a 13-1 Sox laugher.

Lowe is on track for two starts (Games 2 and 6), while John Burkett figures to get the ball in Game 4, despite having never beaten the Yankees in the regular season (0-6, 8.49 ERA). Burkett did beat the Yankees once in the postseason, with Texas in 1996.

When the Yankees were bounced from the playoffs in the first round last season by the Angels, their starters looked old and vulnerable. Not so this season in the first round against the Twins, who scored a total of three runs in the last three games, batting just .198. All four Yankee starters - Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Clemens, and David Wells - went at least seven innings, and all will be well rested against the Sox. Those four have combined for 858 career wins and Cuban defector Jose Contreras, recovered from earlier elbow trouble, could be a factor.

Wells, who is expected to pitch Game 4 in Fenway Park, has never concealed his contempt for the place, though it was in Yankee Stadium where he was taken deep five times by the Sox July 4, when Boston became the first team ever to hit seven home runs in a game against the Bombers.

Edge: Yankees

Starting lineup:

If Johnny Damon is unavailable, Grady Little is left without a legitimate leadoff hitter. Little used six other players in that spot this season, with Bill Mueller getting 11 starts there. The AL batting champion, who has hit best in the No. 8 hole, figures to get the call if Damon can't go, though Little may want to consider Nomar Garciaparra, who led off as a rookie in 1997, and hit .300 against the A's in the Division Series, signaling an end to his September slump (.170).

The Sox showed a knack for staging big innings against the Yankees this season, scoring four or more runs in an inning seven times, highlighted by two six-run outbursts. David Ortiz wore out the Yankees, batting .327 with 6 home runs and 14 RBIs, and causing Roger Clemens to mutter about needing to adjust his plate coverage. Garciaparra, Mueller, and Jason Varitek hit four home runs apiece against the Yankees. Mueller led Sox regulars with a .347 average against the Bombers; the Sox averaged 5.7 runs in their 19 meetings.

The Yankees have a genuine Pedro-killer in Enrique Wilson, Manny Ramirez's favorite dinner partner. Wilson hit a team-best .409 against the Sox. Derek Jeter (.429) and Bernie Williams (.400) had big series against the Twins; Jeter, who hit .394 against the Sox this season, has 107 hits, most by any player in postseason history. Nick Johnson and Jason Giambi showed signs of breaking out of prolonged slumps in the Yankees' clinching win over the Twins; both are extremely patient hitters who will force pitchers to go deep into counts.

Giambi (.194) and Williams (.191) both struggled against the Sox this season. Alfonso Soriano and Jorge Posada, with five home runs apiece, were the biggest long-ball threats against the Sox.

Edge: Red Sox

Bullpens:

The Sox relievers, a liability for much of the season, pledged to reverse that trend in October, and so far have been true to their word. They allowed just two runs in 16 innings against the A's, no runs in 11 innings over the last four games. If Byung Hyun Kim is introduced before Game 1, it will be his first on-field appearance since he flipped off a Fenway crowd before Game 3 of the Division Series. Kim has been on the shelf ever since with what he has told the club is tightness in his pitching shoulder; he could be left off the ALCS roster, a possibility even before he got hurt because of his pitiful history against the Yankees.

Last call in the Division Series twice went to a starter (Derek Lowe); Tim Wakefield also pitched in relief. Scott Williamson, his confidence and fastball restored, showed closer's stuff over the weekend before faltering in Game 5, the third straight day he'd pitched. Williamson still looms as the Sox' best option to close. Grady Little says he'd like to go with 11 pitchers, meaning both Jeff Suppan and Todd Jones could be added to the roster.

On the other side, Mariano Rivera's 0.75 ERA is the best all-time among postseason relievers, and he pitched two innings in each of the first two games against the Twins, breaking bats as he customarily does and retiring all 12 batters he faced. But the Red Sox have cracked his aura of invincibility over the last couple of years with big home runs by Manny Ramirez and the since-departed Shea Hillenbrand, and this season batted a collective .356 against him, in one memorable game scoring four runs against him to wipe out a 5-1 deficit.

Lefthander Chris Hammond, who gave up a three-run home run to Jason Varitek during one memorable Sox comeback in July, now gets skipped over by Joe Torre for Gabe White and Felix Heredia. Jose Contreras gives Torre a powerful alternative to Jeff Nelson as his righthanded setup man.

Edge: Yankees

Defense:

The absence of Johnny Damon in center field would hurt; the little-used Adrian Brown is probably the best defensive option, though Grady Little is liable to use Gabe Kapler, who has a powerful arm but shaky instincts. Damian Jackson is another possibility. Bill Mueller and Nomar Garciaparra form a strong left side, which leaves a seesaw effect because of the limitations of Todd Walker and Kevin Millar on the right side. The Yankees will run on Jason Varitek.

The Yankees upgraded at third with the acquisition of Aaron Boone, and Derek Jeter has shown an extraordinary knack for making highlight plays in October. The Yankee outfield is below average defensively, with no speed on the corners and an overrated Bernie Williams in center. Alfonso Soriano has better range but made more errors at second base than Walker, which should tell you something.

Edge: Even.

Benches:

Gabe Kapler could play a pivotal role for the Red Sox if center fielder Johnny Damon misses all or part of the series because of his concussion. Adrian Brown, kept on the Division Series roster because of Trot Nixon's calf injury, may make the squad again as insurance for Damon. Damian Jackson was bruised and bloodied by his collision with Damon but will fill his usual role as defensive replacement, pinch runner, and second base option against lefties. Lou Merloni was on the roster but did not play in the Division Series.

How do the Bombers stack up? Enrique Wilson is likely to play against Pedro Martinez. Karim Garcia and Dave Dellucci don't exactly conjure images of Paul O'Neill in right field, but Ruben Sierra gives the Yankees some switch-hitting pop off the bench.

Edge: Yankees

Managers:

In his first postseason, Grady Little's biggest decisions -saving Pedro Martinez for Game 5, turning to Scott Williamson to close, batting Todd Walker instead of Nomar Garciaparra third, and giving Derek Lowe last call in Game 5 - have all worked out splendidly. He probably went too long with John Burkett in Game 4, but the Sox' refusal to panic after falling behind two games to none is reflective of Little's own steady demeanor. Some would say he and Joe Torre share that in common.

Torre, worn down since spring training by George Steinbrenner's incessant carping, lamented that the job has lost some of its fun. But after a Game 1 loss to the Twins, Torre was as unflappable as ever, and so was his team. He's going to the Hall of Fame, and deservedly so.

Edge: Yankees

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