By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub
There’s an old, well-known saying in golf: The Masters doesn’t start until the 10th tee on Sunday. If baseball has a version of this, it goes something like this:
At Yankee Stadium, the game doesn’t start until the bottom of the seventh.
As such, Dave Dombrowski and Alex Cora have roughly four months to find an answer, even though Boston escaped from New York with a 5-4 victory last night that left Boston and New York tied atop the American League East. The teams have now played six times this year and have, appropriately, split the affairs 3-3, leaving them each with a 26-11 overall record that ranks first in the major leagues.
Get used to it. The whole year could be like this between these teams. Nip and tuck. Nip and tuck. Nip and tuck. Nip and tuck.
And they will face off six times in the final 13 days of the season.
Can you imagine if this were 1978 and there were no wild card at all? Collision course for a one-game playoff.
But we digress.
Back to point: the Red Sox cracked in the late inning in all three of these games, which isn’t a criticism so much as it is a statement of fact. It is also to be expected. Baseball isn’t like football or hockey – or even basketball – where teams can physically intimidate one another. But the closest you’ll ever get is in the late innings at Yankee Stadium – at least when the Yankees are good – because there is no more intimidating place in all of baseball.
Think about it: in all three of these games in the Bronx, the Yankees had the Red Sox on the ropes late. Again, don’t take this solely as a criticism of the Red Sox. The Yankees do this to everybody, especially when they have the kind of lineup they have now. The last nine outs in New York are a minefield, and it takes an extraordinary team – and we mean extra ordinary – to get through it without significant damage.
Remember: when the Red Sox won Game 7 of the 2004 American league Championship Series in New York, they effectively blew the Yankees out. Even then, all of New England’s knees were knocking a little when Pedro Martinez made a seemingly needless relief appearance in a theretofore one-sided game.
But back to this week. On Tuesday, the Red Sox teetered late when Aaron Boone outmanaged Alex Cora in the seventh and eighth innings, during which the Yankees rallied. On Wednesday, the Red Sox jumped ahead in the top of the seventh only to implode in the bottom of the eighth en route to a 9-6 loss. And it was all headed in a bad direction last night when J.D. Martinez beat the Yankees at their own game, dropping a lob wedge into the first row of the right field seats to pull out a 5-4 win.
The bottom line from these games is that the Red Sox bullpen isn’t good enough to beat New York right now, and they’re not good enough to beat the Houston Astros, either. For Dombrowski, there is no more important assignment between now and July 31 than to fortify the Boston bullpen. The rehabilitating Tyler Thornburg may be part of the solution – he has six strikeouts but also four walks in 4.1 innings so far in the minor leagues – but the reality is that the Red Sox need more. Thornburg alone probably isn’t enough. Not this year. Not against this competition. And certainly not in New York.
Look, the Red Sox have a good team, independent of whether David Price is addicted to video games or having allergic reactions (or both). Maybe Price ultimately ends up in the bullpen, too. (Now there’s an interesting idea.) But what we can say with certainty now is that the bullpen trio of Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes and Carson Smith is not good enough to beat the Yankees. And please, don’t even mention Heath Hembree.
For now, feel free to exhale. The Red Sox and Yankees have played six times so far, and each team effectively held serve at home. For the Red Sox, last night’s win was important in terms in terms of balancing the overall ledger. But the Red Sox at the moment are not championship-caliber – not quite – because the road to a World Series is going to go through New York or Houston – or both.
And if the Red Sox are cracking in those games in May, just imagine what it will be like in October.
You can hear Mazz weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program, and from 6-7 p.m. on The Baseball Reporters. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.