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Challenge rivals all others

They’ve been overmatched, now they’re matched up against Yankees

Lefthanded-hitting Adrian Gonzalez is perfectly suited for Fenway Park. Lefthanded-hitting Adrian Gonzalez is perfectly suited for Fenway Park. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)
By Nick Cafardo
April 8, 2011

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CLEVELAND — An offseason spending spree put the Red Sox in the role of favorite and the Yankees in the role of underdog through spring training. But the Sox’ horrible start and the Yankees’ decent one (4-2) have changed those positions.

The Red Sox find themselves in survival mode, while the Yankees are posed to kick them when they’re down.

Today’s game is more about the Sox righting themselves than about the rivalry, but if they can emerge from their malaise by beating the Yankees? What a rush.

“We’ve just got to relax, man,’’ Dustin Pedroia said. “Get back home, get our fans into it. We miss them. We want to play in front of those guys. Get the new guys a nice, big ovation. It will be good. We’ll be good to go.’’

Good to go?

“Heck, yeah,’’ he said. “We get out to Texas and they’re on a big high after going to the World Series. They had their ceremony to get American League rings. We come here and it’s 30 degrees. We want to get home and play in front of those fans, our fans. We’re trying to find ourselves, find out who we are. That’s it.

“This is our lives. We’re 0-6 and we’re bringing this [expletive] home with us. We need them [the fans] on our side. Either you’re two feet in or you’re two feet out. We need to know.’’

While the Red Sox seem overmatched by everyone these days, here’s a breakdown on how they currently match up against the Yankees:

First base

Adrian Gonzalez vs. Mark Teixeira — Boston finally has its answer to losing out on Teixeira three years ago. Not that Kevin Youkilis wasn’t a fine first baseman, but the Sox were missing a lefthanded-hitting bopper in their lineup, and Gonzalez is the man. Teixeira is a notoriously slow starter, but not this season. He hit home runs in four of his first five games. They are both very good fielders. Teixeira has the advantage of being a switch-hitter, but now we’ll finally see Gonzalez at Fenway, the ballpark that was built for him. Advantage: Red Sox.

Second base

Dustin Pedroia vs. Robinson Cano — We’re talking about an MVP in Pedroia against one of the best pure hitters in baseball in Cano. They’re both huge pieces to their teams. The numbers will always be flashier with Cano, who has a .359 career average and .974 OPS at Fenway, another player perfectly suited for that ballpark. Cano might win a batting title one of these years. Pedroia is trying to get back to that MVP status after missing most of last season with a broken foot. Pedroia is struggling, while Cano also has not lit it up out of the gate. Advantage: Yankees.

Shortstop

Marco Scutaro vs. Derek Jeter — Jeter is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who at 36 is trying to prove he’s not washed up, on the decline, or the many things he used to motivate himself this offseason. Jeter might not be what he used to be in the field, but every now and then you see him make a play in the hole and he still shows that he can get the job done. He spent a lot of time with hitting coach Kevin Long in the offseason and in spring training, trying to get his swing back to what it was two years ago. The guy can still hurt you with clutch hitting, but he’s struggled so far. Scutaro started 0 for 11 but is up to .176 and appears healthy again. Advantage: Yankees.

Third base

Kevin Youkilis vs. Alex Rodriguez — Youkilis is making the transition from first to third and remains a feared hitter, even though he is off to a slow start (.105). A-Rod remains one of the top two or three players in baseball, and with regained mobility because of an improving hip condition, watch out. Scouts commented this week that they’ve never seen a hitter so locked in this early in the season. He was that way through spring training and it’s carried over. In a “down’’ season a year ago, he hit 30 homers and knocked in 125 runs. Advantage: Yankees.

Catcher

Jarrod Saltalamacchia vs. Russell Martin — Martin was an underachiever with the Dodgers, and Saltalamacchia is still trying to realize his potential. Saltalamacchia started 0 for 10, while Martin was .353 through five games. Both have been vulnerable to base stealers. It would behoove the Red Sox, with speed guys Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, to run at will against Martin. The Sox were one of the teams pursuing Martin in the offseason, but backed off. Advantage: Yankees.

Left field

Carl Crawford vs. Brett Gardner — We know the track record Crawford has as a hitter, base stealer, and defender, but haven’t seen those attributes with the Red Sox. Gardner had a solid first full season, also proving to be one of the fastest runners in the game and a very good outfielder. Early on, neither has done much. Advantage: Red Sox.

Center field

Jacoby Ellsbury vs. Curtis Granderson — After a very productive spring training, Ellsbury has slumped (.167), and therefore hasn’t been able to raise havoc on the base paths. Granderson has homered to win a game and has made a couple of highlight catches, but overall has struggled at the plate. Advantage: Yankees.

Right field

J.D. Drew vs. Nick Swisher — Swisher hit .333 in his first five games, while Drew was in and out of the lineup, sitting against tough lefties and not even starting Opening Day. Swisher has had a very productive couple of seasons, while Drew hit only .208 against lefties last season. Drew is a good hitter, but has knocked in fewer than 70 runs in each of his four seasons with the Red Sox. Drew is a superior defender. Advantage: Yankees.

Designated hitter

David Ortiz vs. Jorge Posada — A new role for Posada, who at first had trouble accepting not catching, but he’s started well, with three of his first four hits homers. Ortiz has avoided his customary slow start and has made good contact. The pressure is off with him hitting sixth and he has two homers. He appears to still have a lot left. Advantage: Red Sox.

Bench

Jed Lowrie, Jason Varitek, Mike Cameron, and Darnell McDonald vs. Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez, Gustavo Molina, and Eduardo Nunez — Both are pretty solid. The Sox are apt to use more of their bench, but Jones will definitely have a role in giving some of the Yankees’ lefthanded hitters a break against tough lefties. Lowrie could be a key for the Sox, someone who can be plugged in at shortstop if Scutaro struggles, and moved around the infield. Advantage: Yankees.

Starting pitchers

Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, and Freddy Garcia — The Red Sox were supposed to have the edge in this area, but clearly haven’t to this point. Sabathia has been consistent, while Lester struggled in the opener. Lackey also struggled vs. Texas, while Burnett pitched decently in his first start (five innings, three runs). Hughes and Buchholz both were hit in their openers, but both should turn that around. Nova was impressive in his first start (six innings, one run), while Beckett got his pitch count up (106) over five innings, allowing three runs in a loss. Advantage: Yankees.

Relievers

Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Bobby Jenks, and Dan Wheeler vs. Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, and Dave Robertson — Rivera has four saves and is rolling along, while Soriano has had one meltdown. Bard has been subpar. Jenks and Chamberlain have been solid. Wheeler was shaky in one appearance and Robertson has been decent. The jury is out on Papelbon, who hasn’t had many adrenaline situations with the team off to a tough start. In one appearance, he was all over the place but finished strong. The bullpen should be a great strength for the Yankees, who could really benefit in the postseason. They still haven’t added lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano, who is on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue. Advantage: Yankees.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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