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It's never too early for Red Sox-Yankees

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By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / April 24, 2009
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The Red Sox and Yankees last met under strange circumstances. In late September, the Sox had clinched their customary spot in the playoffs. The Yankees had spent the season squandering theirs. Call-ups dotted the field. It's not worth remembering who won.

They'll meet again tonight in a series brimming with more familiar stakes, underscored by the forces that last season relegated the Yankees to irrelevancy. The tweaked Red Sox and the overhauled Yankees will contend for an early advantage, their division's power shift having added another layer of significance to the rivalry.

The Sox and Yankees will clash for the first time this season at Fenway Park, tied for second place and two games behind Toronto in the American League East. The series will allow one of the rivals to seize an early and potentially crucial edge.

With the Rays providing a new threat despite their current residency in last place, Red Sox-Yankees series now mean more than sending pre-playoff salvos. With three elite teams in one division vying for two playoff berths, each game could provide the margin for making or missing the postseason.

The Sox downplayed the importance of their opponent, not surprising given the calendar. Kevin Youkilis claimed he was focused more on planning his offday than preparing for the Yankees.

"I know who's coming," manager Terry Francona said. "As teams are coming, you've got to pay attention a little bit. See who's swinging, who's not, what's going on. Other than that, I guess I just hope we win. I like playing everybody."

After last year's disparity, the Yankees and Red Sox have the same record (9-6) and the same number of runs (84) through 15 games. The Yankees have allowed gobs more, but that total would be closer to the Sox' if deposed starter Chien-Ming Wang had been merely bad as opposed to awful. With parity having likely returned, here are four other story lines that will shape the series.

1. Welcoming Tex: The first showdown of this season's Red Sox-Yankees rivalry took place before 2009 arrived, when Mark Teixeira chose the Yankees over the Red Sox. Both teams vied for Teixeira before the Yankees landed the offseason's largest prize, and Teixeira's decision made him the rivalry's newest villain.

When he strides to the plate tonight batting third in the top of the first inning (estimated time of at-bat: 7:18 p.m.), the cascade of boos will likely surpass any roar Fenway has produced this season. Teixeira's profile, though, has dwarfed his production.

Fighting an ailing left wrist that forced him to miss three games, Teixeira is hitting .222 with three home runs. Catcher Jason Varitek said he had yet to research Teixeira's tendencies, but he seemed to suggest Teixeira's impact on the Yankees' lineup was overrated.

"He's a very good player," Varitek said. "I'm not taking anything away from his abilities. I still believe in good pitching."

2. Missing A-Rod: Fenway's crowd will have to wait to unveil its serenade for Alex Rodriguez, who could return from hip surgery by May 8. Rodriguez's injury delayed his debut after his admission of steroid use, which will make him an even larger target of Fenway's ire than usual. It also forced the Yankees to start the season without the AL's greatest statistical force.

"You don't have the best player in the game in your lineup, it makes a difference," Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. "He is the best, don't you think? Look at the numbers. The numbers will tell you if you got any doubt."

With Rodriguez out and Teixeira ailing, an unlikely source kept the Yankees' offense surging. Nick Swisher was acquired as a bench player whom the Yankees expected to get on base, even after he batted .219 last year. He's been both a Millarian figure in the clubhouse and one of the most destructive hitters in the league. His 1.148 OPS leads the Yankees and is seventh in the AL.

Swisher has eased Rodriguez's time away. Varitek - who has his own history with Rodriguez - said he expects a similar lineup even without Rodriguez.

"They're a top-to-bottom lineup," Varitek said when asked if Rodriguez not playing would help the Sox. "We'll prepare for them like we do anybody else."

3. Pitchmen: In tonight's series opener, the Red Sox will face Joba Chamberlain, whom Yankees manager Joe Girardi moved up one day so Wang and his abominable 34.50 ERA wouldn't come anywhere near Fenway Park's mound this weekend. If not for Wang's atrocious 0-3 start, the Yankees would likely be looking down on the Sox in the standings. Chamberlain has infamously injected controversy into the latest installments of Sox-Yankees by throwing at Sox batters, most often Kevin Youkilis.

"This is a guy, as good as he is, the next step for him will be to earn respect from everybody in the league," Ortiz said. "He's not a bad guy, but when things like that happen, people get the wrong idea."

CC Sabathia overshadowed A.J. Burnett with his contract, size, and expected impact when they became Yankees in the offseason. But the Sox may have caught an unlucky break by facing Burnett (2-0, 3.20 ERA, .194 batting average against) and not Sabathia (1-1, 4.81, .269).

Burnett - who allowed the Red Sox one run on three hits in 5 2/3 innings in a spring training start - will oppose former Marlins teammate Josh Beckett in tomorrow's matinee matchup on national television. Beckett will be coming off his five-game suspension.

4. Getting the gang back together: At the World Baseball Classic, Dustin Pedroia jokingly plastered a deodorant advertisement featuring Team USA teammate Derek Jeter in his locker. Pedroia, Jeter, and Youkilis became three of the closest players on the team. Pedroia later told Ortiz that if he could play with anyone in baseball not on the Red Sox, it would be Jeter.

Now those are some strange developments in this rivalry. It should take one weekend of baseball to undo that goodwill, at least on the field.

"It's going to be fun," Pedroia said. "Obviously, they have a great team, and we feel like we do, too. Any time you play those guys, they're going to be long games and exciting games. We're looking forward to it."

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