If there was any lingering doubt as to why the Yankees and Red Sox are 2-3 -- proper order to be determined -- among the top teams in the American League (those White Sox look to be a juggernaut), look no further than this week’s pitching matchups at Yankee Stadium.
Tuesday: Josh Beckett (3-1, 4.86 ERA) vs. Randy Johnson (5-2, 5.02)
Wednesday: Curt Schilling (5-1, 3.02) vs. Mike Mussina (5-1, 2.35)
Thursday: Tim Wakefield (2-4, 3.97) vs. Shawn Chacon (4-1, 3.94)
For purposes of theater, the only more salivating possibility would be to have former teammates Schilling and Johnson going head-to-head tomorrow evening at Yankee Stadium, but that’s a dish better served in the dusk of the season than in the mid-morning period we currently occupy. As constituted, these pitching matchups we have to look forward to couldn’t be any more enticing for a week of May baseball in the Bronx. Fast forward to October, and you would be hard-pressed to discover a showdown sheet this evenly matched between any two teams.
Tomorrow, we have the recently struggling Beckett, who pitches at Yankee Stadium for the first time since the night he was named World Series MVP in 2003, against Johnson, who has given up five or more earned runs in three of his last four starts, but was 5-0 against Boston last season. Advantage: push.
Wednesday it’s Sox ace Schilling vs. Yankees ace Mussina, who in the final year of his contract is pitching better than he ever has in a Yankee uniform, perhaps not coincidentally with a $17 million club option on the table for 2007. Advantage: push.
On Thursday, Wakefield, comfortable on the mound again with batterymate Doug Mirabelli, and coming off last week’s no-decision against New York, is up against Chacon, who has limited the opposition to one earned run in each of his last five starts. Advantage: Yankees -- slightly.
Tied for first, separated by percentage points, this is shaping up to be the best series of the young season thus far. Particularly after last Monday’s appetizer, the best game of Boston’s season no doubt, and during the following days, when everybody from smarmy columnists to Kevin Millar lectured Red Sox fans for their behavior, it’s difficult to remember sometimes that we’re five weeks into the long haul. And then you pick up the paper and check out the thumbnails on the docket, and it certainly doesn’t make things any easier.
Remember that most wondered whether the Yankees had any pitching? Think again. New York’s 3.76 ERA is fourth-best in baseball, while the Red Sox are 17th. Mussina has really solidified the starting rotation, and the bullpen, often the crux of Joe Torre’s reign the past few seasons, has been phenomenal, especially with Mike Myers (1.08 ERA), Scott Proctor (1.33 ERA), and Ron Villone (1.80 ERA) setting up Mariano Rivera, who has just six saves thus far, likely because the Yankees bludgeon the competition when they win. It’s no surprise that the Yankees’ 175 runs are second-best in baseball to the Indians’ 200.
Scoring runs has, however, been a problem for these Red Sox, or at least until they arrived at the confines, where Boston enjoyed a 5-1 homestand. The road hasn’t been as friendly. After starting the season with a 5-1 mark away from Fenway, the Red Sox went just 3-6 on their three-city road trip a fortnight ago. On that trip, Boston bats produced 40 runs, but pitching allowed 62 to Toronto, Cleveland, and Tampa, although that number is somewhat skewed thanks to the Indians’ 15-3 win on April 27.
Still though, as Foxsports.com’s Daryn Perry points out, “One concern for Boston is the run differential. These two are neck-and-neck in the standings, but the Yankees' run differential (+65 -- tops in baseball) is much better than Boston's (+12). Still, both clubs are streaking, with the Yankees having won five in a row and the Red Sox's having taken four in a row.”
It is what it is for the time being. Until Coco Crisp returns to instill balance in the order, things might be a bit lopsided. But perhaps the other key (besides simply waiting for Crisp) has been Mark Loretta, who has been on fire since Thursday, going 8 for 16 in that timeframe and leading the Sox to a 25-9 run differential over the hapless Orioles. If Loretta hits consistently from the two-spot, the Sox can afford Alex Gonzalez in the nine-hole. If not, Dustin Pedroia probably has to come up sooner rather than later to take over shortstop on the fly.
That’s all in good time. It IS May, after all, far too early to be concerning ourselves with that sort of proactive measure. It’s also too premature to get fully captivated by Red Sox-Yankees. But that won’t stop us, and based on what we potentially could see, who can blame us?