I know, I know, never too much of a good thing for some people. And after all, following this week’s four-game series in the Bronx, the Red Sox and Yankees won’t meet again until August, more than 60 days from now. I hope between now and then we don’t lose a few fans who consider these games the beginning and end to their fanatical pleasures.
This is where one might typically write, “The Sox and Yankees renew their rivalry tonight ...” Except that I have library books that have been out longer (do yourself a favor and check out Mil Millington) than the amount of time that has passed since the Red Sox and Yankees last met, less than a fortnight ago at Fenway Park. I mean, good grief, it was two weeks ago today that I wrote how the story lines between these two teams had been exhausted. And I can’t even fall back on that story line of there being no story lines.
OK, so even the “Yankees are banged up” angle was played two weeks ago, only to see New York take two of three from Boston. But it’s even worse today. Gary Sheffield is back on the disabled list. Derek Jeter was hit on the thumb yesterday by Rodrigo Lopez and is day-to-day. Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi are questionable with a stomach flu that might have been passed on to them by Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade.
And yet, there they are, a half-game out of first, prompting Curt Schilling yesterday to say Joe Torre is the AL manager of the year. Jim Leyland might have a thing or two to say about that (or based on yesterday’s outburst, a few more) but OK, we’ll play.
In lieu of Hideki Matsui, Torre has enjoyed the breakout of young talent Melky Cabrera. Instead of Sheffield’s big stick in the middle of the lineup, he’s had to endure watching Terrence Long swat at offerings. Recently (until tonight, wouldn’t you know it) he’s had to see Kyle Farnsworth do a terrible impersonation of Mariano Rivera. He’s had to watch someone who looks like Jaret Wright pitch like someone other dude entirely.
It’s been a pretty good job, to say the least, for Torre to keep his $200 million Yankees afloat in the American League East. No question. Then again, Schilling’s manager has kept a team in first place consistently despite receiving nothing from David Wells, next to nothing from Matt Clement, and nothing but erratic outings from Tim Wakefield.
As if that weren’t enough, Terry Francona's pitching staff is so thin right now that David Pauley “earned” himself another start. At Yankee Stadium, tomorrow night. That's not to say Jonathan Lester was a better option (we could see him on Saturday against Texas). He wasn't, not at Yankee Stadium for his first big league start against a club that murders lefties (.301 vs. .286). Pauley is just what they have to sacrifice for the night.
At the very least, the one area Torre’s team has been surprisingly deep has been his pitching staff, with Wright stepping up big in Shawn Chacon’s absence and Mussina pitching better than he has since ... I dunno, as good as he’s been in the past, can you remember him ever pitching this well?
You can argue any successful lineup with Kelly Stinnett in it automatically gives that skipper an argument for Manager of the Year, but Francona has had Alex Gonzalez and Willie Harris to endure in the lineup at the same time periodically. And all the while, he’s dealt with what earlier was a struggling bullpen but has now settled down with Rudy Seanez a force instead of a liability. He has slowly realized that a few young arms (Jermaine Van Buren, in particular) are emerging as dependable resources in times of need, which might even lessen the load on an overworked guy like Mike Timlin upon his return.
Just as any other Boston manager to precede him, Francona will feel the heat when he makes a questionable move, but will enjoy few accolades when he’s kept a team with certain flaws in first place.
Still, Leyland is the man at this juncture. While there can be no denying in Motown that this was a bad week for the Tigers (This just in: Jason Grilli, when asked to point it out on a map of Comerica Field, found home plate finally), who stared down a pair of consecutive series against the Yankees and Red Sox with the expressed mission to prove themselves to the rest of the American League. Instead, the team with the best record in baseball, yet one thought inflated thanks to the presence of the awful Royals and Twins in the AL Central, dropped five of seven to legitimate contenders.
No sooner did the Red Sox leave town yesterday than the comparisons to the 2005 Baltimore Orioles (who flew out of the gate last season but faded badly in the second half) grew greater. Didn’t see too many votes for Lee Mazzilli when all was said and done last season. But the Orioles comparisons are soaked in doubt, rather than potential reality. In fact, the last team I remember a team that looked like the Tigers was not the Orioles of a season ago, but the Braves of 15 years past, a team that rode a young, emerging pitching staff all the way past the Pittsburgh Pirates (and manager Leyland) to a dramatic Game 7 loss to former Tigers legend Jack Morris and the Minnesota Twins.
The Braves that season enjoyed one of baseball's greatest worst-to-first turnarounds, going from 65-97 in 1990 to 94-68 one year later. The 2005 Tigers finished just 66-96 and have already won more than half as many games as they did in 2005 through their first 57.
That’s not to say to expect the same out of the Tigers over the next few months. But it’s quite obvious what kind of effect Leyland has had on this club since taking over for Alan Trammel. Right now it’s his award to lose, followed by Francona, Torre, and Buck Showalter, not necessarily in that order.
The Red Sox today have the second-best record in the AL, the same number of wins as the Yankees, one fewer loss in the right column. And while we enjoy another chapter of this historic rivalry, one division over another one-two showdown will take place between Detroit and Chicago, two teams that over the past two years that have proven to us, if nothing else, a certain competitive balance is returning to Major League Baseball after years of a line being drawn between the haves and have nots. And as exciting as Sox-Yanks continues to be, perhaps for the long-range health of the game, nothing is more titillating than that.