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In New York, opportunity knocks for the Red Sox

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 13, 2011 08:22 AM

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For the moment, let's think of this in basketball terms: by the end of the weekend, barring rainouts, the Red Sox will have played precisely 40 games, effectively 25 percent of their season. That is a mere one quarter of play. And with a flourish here in the final few minutes, the Red Sox can erase much of the damage they have wrought during a stretch of the year that has been, in a word, unstable.

The Red Sox seem to recognize this, of course, or the club might not have reshuffled its pitching rotation so that, in order, Clay Buchholz (vs. Bartolo Colon), Josh Beckett (vs. CC Sabathia) and Jon Lester (vs. Freddy Garcia) will face the rival New York Yankees this weekend in the Bronx. Yesterday marked the Sox' only day off this month. Factor in the end of April and the beginning of June, and the Red Sox are the midst of a stretch during which they will play 36 times in 37 days. And yet, despite that, they are skipping Daisuke Matsuzaka and working their pitchers on less rest, not more, which contradicts most everything the Sox have preached under manager Terry Francona and before.

For the majority of the last 15 years, the Red Sox have managed the regular season as marathon, building in extra rest for their pitchers when able, gearing everything towards being at full strength come September and, more importantly, October.

But now, thanks to a horrendous 2-10 start, they are being forced to play the earlier part of this season -- the first quarter -- with more urgency than usual.

With regard to the standings, we all can do the math. At the moment, the Sox trail the Yankees by five games in the loss column. Were Boston to get swept this weekend, the margin would be a bulging eight. If the Sox sweep, the margin would dwindle to two. In all probability, come Monday, the Sox will trail by six or four, and there is little question that this series means far more to the Red Sox than it does to the Yankees.

Boston's season is not at stake here. But if the Red Sox fall behind by eight games -- even a quarter of the way into the season -- that could be too great a deficit to overcome against a Yankees team that has won at least 92 games in 13 of the last 15 seasons.

And in the other two, the Yankees won 87 and 89.

For the Red Sox, the concerns this weekend are obvious. From the very start of this season, the Sox have been downright schizophrenic. They have yet to score as many as five runs in three consecutive games. They rarely seem to get their pitching and offense in the same game. Their bullpen has been a colossal disappointment. The scariest part is that the Sox have generally been quite healthy, which only makes it all the more curious and frustrating that they have yet to be reach .500 at any point this season.

On three occasions this year, the Sox have played a game with the chance to even their record. In those three games, they 0-3 and have been outscored by a relatively slim margin of 16-10, which only makes it all more frustrating.

Why can't this team get over the hump? What is missing? Why are the Sox just 3-6 in one-run games?

Meanwhile, as they go into New York, know this: There has been no tougher place in baseball for a visiting team to play than Yankee Stadium since New York moved into its new digs in 2009. New York is 122-60 in the new stadium, a .670 winning percentage that translates into 109 wins over every 162 games. The Yankees have averaged nearly six runs a game at home. And against righthanded pitching in New York, as a team, the Yankees have posted a collective .846 OPS. (Based on final 2010 statistics, this is like facing Mark Teixeira or Alex Rodriguez in every at-bat.)

In baseball, from Lou Gorman to Billy Beane, general managers have often regarded the first six or eight weeks as a fair sample size in making evaluations. Given what the Red Sox have invested in this team -- from their $180 million payroll to the prospects sacrificed for Adrian Gonzalez -- team officials are almost certain to give this club more time. Nonetheless, the Red Sox are now rapidly approaching the middle of their schedule, and all that stands between them and the second quarter is a three-game series with the Yankees.

While it is not imperative for the Red Sox to win the series at Yankee Stadium this weekend, now would be a good time for the team to stabilize, to settle on its identity, to become the team we all believe it can be.

As any basketball fan will tell you, you can't often win a game in the first quarter.

But you can sure as hell lose it.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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