Dare I say it, but unless we’re in for a few more rounds of Midwestern-style tempests, it could be a crisp and efficient series this weekend at Fenway between the Red Sox and Yankees.
But that’s what should probably concern Red Sox fans about the prospects of an AL East title.
Despite claims of New York pulling off their recent streak of wins with “smoke and mirrors,” the numbers tell a much different story. No other team in the American League has pitched better than the Yankees this month, 12-6 in July with a 3.07 ERA. The Red Sox are second with a 10-8 mark and a 3.38 ERA.
Not to mention this weekend we get prime time showdowns between fireballers Joba Chamberlain and Josh Beckett Friday night, veterans Andy Pettitte and Tim Wakefield on Saturday, and Jon Lester vs. Sidney Ponson, who is probably himself trying to figure out how he’s 6-1.
Not that this is of great value, but it is interesting to note that last July, when the Yankees began their successful push for the wild card, their pitching staff was 19-9 with a 4.16 ERA (Boston: 15-12, 3.66). Last August they were 18-11 with a 5.16 ERA (Boston: 16-13, 3.97). Bottom line, their staff is pitching at an ERA about a run better than what they were a year ago, which seems to suggest that unless Mike Mussina stops taking his playing-for-a-contract pills anytime soon, they’re not going anywhere over the next two months.
Whether that should most concern the Rays, Red Sox, Twins, White Sox, or Tigers is certainly up for debate. But as for the Yankees being dead and buried, not this year, which we, of course, say every year about this time or so.
But there’s a big difference this time around. Chamberlain-Pettite-Mussina has proven to be as dangerous a starting trio as anything the Red Sox or Angels can toss out to the mound. And the scariest thought: Chien-Ming Wang could be back by the end of next month.
Add him to the mix and suddenly the Yankees look like World Series contenders. As excited as Red Sox fans are to add David Ortiz back into the mix tomorrow night, imagine how Yankee fans might feel about the possibility of adding a guy who won 19 games for them last season.
No longer do the Yankees solely win by slugging their way to 10-9 wins, though they have the firepower to do that as well. Their pitching, thought decimated about a month ago with the loss of Wang and Phil Hughes, has allowed just 12 runs in New York’s six-game winning streak since the end of the All-Star break. Boston allowed 11 in its first game back alone.
Yes, there are lineup concerns, especially considering Jorge Posada is back on the disabled list, but even that could be a blessing in disguise for the Bombers. As Yankees blog the Bronx Block points out, “Yankees pitchers have a 3.49 ERA throwing to Molina and a 4.65 ERA pitching to Jorge. I am sure that some if the disparity may be explained by Mike Mussina insisting on throwing to Molina, as well as some luck factoring into the equation. However, a gap that large suggests that something real and tangible may in fact differentiate the game calling of these two backstops.”
Hideki Matsui remains a long shot to return, but Johnny Damon is back just in time to return to Boston this weekend, and there’s still the possibility the team secures a bat prior to the trading deadline, or at least one without the stiffness of Richie Sexson. In fact, it’s somewhat odd that the offense is where certain things are lacking with this team rather than the pitching, which used to be the annual trademark. The Yankees are just seventh in the AL with 474 runs scored. They’re just ninth in the league with 88 runs this month, a.262 batting average, and a .730 OPS.
But the starters have more than made up for offensive inefficiencies. Mussina yesterday won his 13th game of the season by shutting down the Twins over eight innings. In eight of his last 10 starts, Mussina has allowed two runs or fewer.
Tomorrow night, Chamberlain gets his first Fenway start. The jury’s still out on the righty, but in his two starts since facing Boston at Yankee Stadium earlier this month, he’s allowed four earned runs, with a strikeout to walk ratio of 17:1, and has not earned a win. Andy Pettitte in five of his last nine starts (since getting blasted for 10 runs by the Royals) has allowed one earned run or less.
Give skipper Joe Girardi credit. Ever since his bizarre postgame meeting and ensuing press conference after the July 4 loss to Boston, his team is 11-3. New York has won 10 in a row at Yankee Stadium, its longest such streak there since 1998, the year they rolled to 114 wins and a World Series title.
Thanks to the Rays’ emergence, we’ve got what promises to be a thrilling three-team race in the AL East. Mix in the three teams going at it in the Central, and its evident no wild card is assured for second place.
The Yankees are now 33-22 at home, and 23-23 on the road, which believe it or not, is the second-best road mark in the league. Boston would like nothing more than to put a dent in that record this weekend, when the Red Sox and Yankees meet head-to-head for the second straight time with neither of them in first place.
The pennant race officially begins tomorrow. And this time, the Yankees’ midseason surge is something of major concern.