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Red Sox, Yankees exceed expectations

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 30, 2013 11:24 PM

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Had 'em pegged for fourth place. You?

No, I don't mean the Red Sox. While I'm not warming up for a victory lap just yet, long before we saw the results I appreciated Ben Cherington's reasoned approach of signing a proven if imperfect upper-middle-class of players who at the least would improve the Red Sox' roster depth and character.

I thought they'd be pretty good – a likable wild-card contender – provided that Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz were healthy and rejuvenated. Their performance has exceeded any reasonable explanation, perhaps the essential reason why the first-place Red Sox are more than pretty good.

But the Yankees? The second-place Yankees, who trail the Red Sox by two games in the American League East race as they meet for a three-game series in the Bronx beginning Friday night? I thought they were a fourth-place club in a pinstriped disguise, and the only reason I didn't pick them to finish last is because I believed the Orioles, so fortunate in one-run games a season ago, were headed for a serious regression. Who knew Chris Davis would turn into '27 Babe Ruth?

Instead, here are the Yankees, in the mix as always, though with a different method for success than usual. Their pitching, led by 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda (6-3, 2.39 ERA), has been exceptional, permitting the second-fewest runs per game (3.83) in the league.

They are not winning by stacking star upon star in the lineup and pummeling opposing pitchers into submission. The Yankees rank 11th in the AL in runs per game (4.11), ahead of only Kansas City, Houston, Seattle and the Chicago White Sox, They have scored 10 runs in their last five games, and MVP candidate Robinson Cano is surrounded by a cast that seems like it could be the preliminary roster for the 2014 Long Island Ducks: Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Red Sox refugee Lyle Overbay, Jayson Nix, Chris Stewart, and various other discards and mediocrities.

ciriaco1finn.jpgWhile Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has again shown a deft touch in finding fallen stars who might thrive in a particular role -- Wells and Hafner are this year's Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez -- relying on such players for an extended stretch is not a sustainable model for success. Wells has a .610 OPS in May. Hafner is pre-scheduling his next MRI, just in case.

Yet they really have no choice. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have not played because of injury, Mark Teixeira will be active tonight for the first time this season, and Kevin Youkilis and Curtis Granderson have 103 plate appearances between them.

As it is, the Yankees are probably asking too much of the returning Teixeira and Youkilis. You get the sense their injured guys who are supposed to give them a boost will come back ... and get injured again. It already happened, in a fluky way, to Granderson.

Still, kudos to them for McGyvering the whole thing together through the first one-third of the season. While the True Yankees have for the most part become a lineup of Who Yankees, their surprising success in the wake of all that they have endured means that this weekend's series has a little extra juice to it.

It's the first time the Red Sox and Yankees have met since the opening series of the season, and it's the first time they've met when it's mattered to both teams since ... well, it's been a little while, probably since the four-game set early last July when the Red Sox were still hovering around .500 and hadn't hit the iceberg yet.

From a Red Sox perspective, the highlight of their showdowns with the Yankees last year was watching Pedro Ciriaco get a bunch of hits en route to becoming our favorite journeyman-on-a-hot-streak mirage since Dwyane Hosey or Rudy Pemberton. Those are the things you cling to when your rival finishes 26 games and four spots ahead of you in the standings.

maaskevinfinn61.jpgIt's nice that the games matter again. I mean, of course they always matter in some way in this rivalry, even back in the days when both teams were fodder for the real contenders and the most heated debate was whether Phil Plantier or Kevin Maas would get to 400 career homers first.

I'll never be one to howl that the Red Sox lost a part of their identity in October 2004. But I do miss the white-hot intensity of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry of a decade of a decade ago, or even 15 years ago when the vibe was Pedro, Nomar, and 23 role players against the world.

That mutual hatred – and that is the right word – is absent to some degree, at least until the rosters are both extraordinary and the stakes are at their steepest.

Right now, the Red Sox are a legitimately good team, and the Yankees have pieced it all together improbably to play like one so far. On June 1, that's a fine place to be.

For those who didn't believe in the Red Sox from the beginning, here's to raised expectations, and the new faith that they are the sole team in this rivalry that will continue to exceed them.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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