Here’s one conclusion that could be drawn from the pitching matchups for the Red Sox’ crucial four-game set against the first-place Yankees, beginning tonight at the new Yankee Stadium:
Josh Beckett (in the second game) and Jon Lester (in the finale) must deliver like aces, because the other two matchups heavily favor the Yankees. If Beckett and Lester can come through victoriously, anything else is a bonus for the Sox, who trail New York by 2.5 games in the division.
Tonight in the opener, the Yankees send out Joba Chamberlain, who has been on a roll, against the struggling John Smoltz. Here is a closer look at the pitching pairings:
Smoltz (2-4, 7.12 ERA) vs. Chamberlain (7-2, 3.58)
There’s no way around it: Smoltz, the 42-year-old future Hall of Famer, has been a disappointment during his first seven starts with the Sox after 20 years with the Atlanta Braves. He has allowed 50 hits and six home runs in 36.2 innings, and is yet to compile a quality start despite pitching against some of the worst teams in baseball (three starts against Baltimore, plus Oakland, Washington, and Kansas City). He has a chance for redemption tonight, but the numbers don’t suggest it is probable. The new Yankee Stadium is a delight for lefthanded power hitters, and lefties have hammered Smoltz to the tune of a .397 batting average and a 1.094 OPS this season. Chamberlain, who is 19 years Smoltz’s junior, has thrived since the All-Star break, winning all three of his starts with a 0.83 ERA. In his last outing, the hard-throwing righthander pitched eight shutout innings, allowing three hits, in a victory over the Rays. Against the Red Sox in his career, he is 2-1 with a 3.49 ERA in eight games (four starts).
Josh Beckett (13-4, 3.27) vs. A.J. Burnett (10-5, 3.89)
This is perhaps the most intriguing matchup of the series, with Beckett, who leads the AL with 13 wins and has moved to the forefront of the Cy Young race after a slow start, matching up with his former teammate with the Florida Marlins for the third time this season and facing the Yankees for the fourth time overall in 2009. He is 2-0 with a 5.82 ERA against New York, including a gem on June 9, when he allowed just one hit over six innings in a 7-0 win. In his last four starts, Beckett is 3-1 with a 2.03 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP, including seven shutout innings of six-hit ball in a 4-0 win over Baltimore Saturday. Burnett, another of the Yankees’ major free-agent signings in the offseason, entered the season with the reputation as a Red Sox nemesis — he was 5-0 against them in his career through last season — but the Yankees have lost both of his starts against Boston this year, including a 16-11 shootout April 25. In his last start, he allowed 10 hits and seven earned runs in 4.2 innings of a 14-4 loss to the White Sox on Aug. 1. But his his previous start, he limited the Rays to two hits and an unearned run in seven innings.
Clay Buchholz (1-1, 6.05) vs. CC Sabathia (11-7, 3.95)
Another matchup that, on paper and various other surfaces, favors the Yankees. Buchholz dominated in Triple A this spring and the soon-to-be-25-year-old righthander looked like he would be ready to make significant contributions to the Red Sox when called upon. But it hasn’t quite happened. While he was adequate through his first three starts, winning one, losing one, and posting a 3.52 ERA while failing to make it through the sixth inning in all of them, his last start was a disaster. Despite being handed a 7-0 lead last Sunday against the Orioles, he couldn’t make it through the fifth inning to get the win. In four innings, he allowed nine hits and seven runs as his ERA ballooned more than two runs. This also doesn’t bode well for his first start of the season against the Yankees, against whom he has a 7.45 lifetime ERA: Lefthanders are hitting him at a .366 clip this season, while righties have a .971 OPS. As for the Yankees starter, while Sabathia hasn’t been the true ace the Yankees believed they were getting when he signed a seven-year, $161-million deal in the offseason, he has been a workhorse, pitching 155 innings, second only to Roy Halladay’s 157 for Toronto. In his career, Sabathia has a 2-5 record with a 4.07 ERA during the regular season versus the Red Sox.
Jon Lester (9-7, 3.79) vs. Andy Pettitte (9-6, 4.35)
In the finale of the series, the Red Sox’ 25-year-old lefthander matches up with the veteran Yankee southpaw, perhaps the pitcher to whom Lester is most often compared. While Lester has had a remarkable season in some ways — he has already exceeded last season’s strikeout total (he has 158, six more than last year) in 70.1 fewer innings — he has also had his share of tough luck recently. In four starts since the break, he has a 3.46 ERA but just one victory. In his last start Tuesday against the Rays, he allowed three hits and one run while whiffing 10 in six innings, but settled for a no-decision in a game the Sox eventually lost in 13 innings. Meanwhile, in his last start, Pettitte allowed just one run in 6.2 innings against the Jays, earning the win when his teammates connected for three home runs off Roy Halladay.