Teams of different stripes
While Yankees flounder, Red Sox are flourishing
Tom Werner, who made his fortune in sitcoms, tried out some new material last night on the Japan Society of Boston, which was honoring the Red Sox chairman at a dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel.
"There was a pitcher in Japan," he told the guests, "who we knew had the talent to pitch major league baseball, the mental makeup to deal with the pressure in Boston, and the savvy to come into Fenway Park and immediately make an impact on our club.
"And that is why we signed . . . Hideki Okajima."
When your team has the best record in baseball, you laugh, and the world laughs with you. When you're the New York Yankees, who stumble into town 13 1/2 games behind the Red Sox, the laughs come from the outside and you're the punch lines in pinstripes (one of the Japanese phrases Werner said he'd learned translated into "the Yankees stink").
There is the basement and then there is debasement, of which the Yankees received more than their share this week. A New York tabloid plastered photos and stories detailing alleged indiscretions by third baseman Alex Rodriguez, whose personal life was subjected to exposure customarily experienced by politicians, movie stars, and rock idols. Then, in Wednesday night's win over the Blue Jays, Rodriguez was accused of playing dirty for yelling while Blue Jays third baseman Howie Clark was camped under a popup, distracting him into missing the catch. Winning baseball, Rodriguez claimed. Bush league, said the Jays.
The Yankees came here without Roger Clemens, whom they are paying more than $18 million for four months to help salvage their season, but are holding him out of what manager Joe Torre called a "circus" in Boston. Clemens will start Monday night in Chicago. Torre's reasons are sound in theory -- he has three of his best pitchers, Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, and Andy Pettitte, lined up to face the Sox. But considering the drama the Yankees pumped into the announcement of Clemens's return -- having him appear in the owner's box at Yankee Stadium to tell the fans he was coming back -- it's startling to see them back away from great theater.
And there was another sideshow yesterday, this one involving Jason Giambi, the Yankees' slumping designated hitter. Giambi has been awaiting word from commissioner Bud Selig on whether he'll face disciplinary action regarding statements he made to USA Today that tacitly acknowledged the steroid use he told a BALCO grand jury about. Instead, Giambi was informed he has torn tissue in the arch of his left foot. He will be placed on the disabled list before tonight's game, his foot will be placed in a walking boot, and he is expected to miss at least three weeks, perhaps the rest of the season.
Giambi already had been absent from the Yankee offense. He batted .177 last month, hit just three home runs, and half of his six RBIs came Wednesday night. He had more whiffs (18) than hits (11) in May. Johnny Damon, who has been hobbled with strained calf muscles, is expected to serve as DH, with Melky Cabrera sliding into center field.
Perhaps more devastating was the news that Phillip Hughes, the Yankees' top pitching prospect who blew out a hamstring working on a no-hitter against Tampa Bay, has sustained a Grade 3 ankle sprain during rehab, which may cost him another 8-10 weeks. That's piling on for a team forced to use 11 starting pitchers this season.
The Sox, meanwhile, are coming off one of their best months in memory, a 20-8 May in which seven players batted better than .300 and five players had an on-base percentage of .400 or better. Kevin Youkilis takes a 22-game hitting streak into the series -- he led the Sox in hits, runs, RBIs, and doubles last month, and tied Mike Lowell for most home runs with six. His batting average of .402 was eclipsed only by the rookie second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, who batted .415, had an on-base percentage of .472, and with six doubles and two home runs crafted a .600 slugging percentage. In a month's time, Pedroia silenced the debate over whether he belongs here.
Lowell has hit safely in his last 22 games at Fenway Park, while Jason Varitek, who turned 35 in the season's first week, delivered a strong month at the plate -- .311, 3 HRs, 17 RBIs, .416 OBP, .541 SGP.
The Sox pitching staff is the oldest in the American League (average age 32; the Yankees, at 30.4, are the only other AL staff over 30), but the collective ERA of 3.71 is second in the league. Josh Beckett missed two weeks with torn skin on his middle finger, but remains unbeaten at 8-0. Daisuke Matsuzaka has an ERA just under 5.00 (4.83) but has seven wins and isn't likely to be upstaged by Okajima all summer. Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield have five wins apiece, Schilling coming off a dominating start against the Indians to take on the Bombers tomorrow afternoon, while Okajima's 1.05 is tied for the best relief ERA in the league, an unshakable bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon (1.86, 13 of 14 in save opportunities).
There are fault lines. Kyle Snyder has emerged as a dependable reliever (0.79 ERA in nine relief appearances last month) and lefthander Javier Lopez has been terrific since his recall from Pawtucket, but J.C. Romero is walking people again (9 in his last 5 IP), and Joel Piñeiro is getting hit (7.15 ERA, .313 BA against in May). With Mike Timlin trying to rebound from a shoulder strain in Pawtucket, should Okajima suddenly morph into a middling reliever, the Sox might have a tougher time protecting leads (they are 30-1 when leading after seven innings).
J.D. Drew continues to struggle in right field (.171 in May, no home runs in his last 29 games and 101 at-bats, the longest drought on the team) , while Julio Lugo knocked in 21 runs last month despite a horrific on-base average of .241. Overall, Lugo's leadoff on-base average of .291 is the third worst in the league (former Sox prospect Hanley Ramirez leads the majors at .425). Center fielder Coco Crisp has been dazzling with his glove, but only intermittently at the plate (.224, .303 OBP in May).
The Sox had an identical 36-16 record in 2002, Grady Little's first year as manager, and statistically were even better in 2002 at the same point in the season. They had a greater run differential (plus-86 then, plus-79 now), a higher batting average (.288 to .277), a lower ERA (3.68 to 3.71), and more home runs (57 to 56).
Still, the '02 team was overtaken by the Yankees and didn't even make the playoffs, winning 93 games to the Yankees' 103 and finishing 10 1/2 games behind in the American League East. A big difference now: In '02, the Yankees also got off to a great start and caught the Sox by June 23. The Yankees have far more ground to cover this time.
But does that take away from this weekend's rendezvous?
"Take the lead and throw it out the window," Varitek said. "It's another series for us and it is the Yankees, and the hype will never change."
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.