By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The Boston Red Sox open a three-game set this evening at Yankee Stadium. It’s a midsummer night’s dream of a matchup, showcasing two of the best lineups in baseball. On the mound, Boston is set to deploy their two best starters and another in Eduardo Rodriguez, who is having a breakout campaign. The Yankees will counter with their ace in the series finale. And it’s the first time in a decade that the two rivals have kicked off Fourth of July festivities while sitting 1-2 in the American League East.
The teams have split the six games they’ve played so far, with Boston winning a series at Fenway Park and New York responding in kind in the Bronx. With the AL full of tomato cans this year, the Sox and Yankees have combined to play 25 games over .500 since their last meeting on May 10. New York is currently facing some injuries to their pitching staff, and All-Star catcher Gary Sanchez, who sits below the Mendoza Line, was recently placed on the disabled list following a month span that saw him accumulate just nine hits and a .424 OPS.
For Boston, the song remains the same: lineup depth and bullpen reliability.
But this is Red Sox-Yankees. When the two teams clash, it’s usually about the star power. And with both teams back on top, there will be plenty on display.
Many thought the Yankees beat Boston to the punch when they acquired reigning National League Most Valuable Player Giancarlo Stanton for a bunch of used baseballs and a year’s supply of Cracker Jacks. But Boston’s patient pursuit of free agent J.D. Martinez has yielded the lion’s share of glowing first half press. Martinez enters Friday night’s action with a slash line of .326/.394/.648 and a league-leading 25 homers and 64 runs driven in. By comparison, Stanton is well shy of his 2017 pace (now up to .265/.337/.510 with six fewer dingers and 18 fewer RBI than Martinez), but can heat up at any moment. With the Bombers lurking just a game back in the division standings, a Stanton hot streak could have a major impact down the stretch.
The Yankees pitchers are who we thought they were, and the Sox can’t let them off the hook this weekend. Luis Severino is a force and his performance thus far has been on par with Boston ace Chris Sale. But as with Sale, durability will be a concern for the starter. Severino blew away his career-high in innings pitched last season with 193.1, and it remains to be seen how far the 24-year old can go past that. He’s on pace to top 230, as rookie manager Aaron Boone has been liberal with his use.
The Red Sox are the only team to score more than three runs off Severino in a start all season. He’ll follow veteran C.C. Sabathia and an inconsistent Sonny Gray to the hill for the Bombers.
Oh, yeah. About Sale. Through 17 starts, the Sox have cut his pitch count by 138 pitches compared to 2017. Granted, he was second in the majors to Justin Verlander in that category last season and remains among the most-used starters in the game in 2018. But the earlier trips to the showers combined with a less intense Spring Training workload have been part of a concerted effort to keep Sale sharp into October. The numbers don’t lie: though his strikeout numbers typically remain high, Sale, who is 36 games over .500 for his career, is five games under during the months of September and October, with a significant increase in ERA and WHIP against otherwise ultra-tidy career marks. This manifested during a rough 12-start stretch (including the postseason) at the end of a mostly brilliant 2017.
Sale hit 100 mph on the last pitch of his most recent start. There’s no question he has the tools and the intensity. But in order to preserve Sale, the Sox need to put some distance between themselves and their counterparts down 95. This weekend can contribute to that effort. Sale will follow Game 1 starter Rodriguez to the bump on Saturday.
Sunday night’s Game 3 will be Price-Severino, a juicy matchup if there ever was one: the highest paid pitcher in baseball against a guy who one day may be equally well-compensated. Price’s shortcomings have been well-documented during his time in Boston, but over the last six weeks he’s given fans near-100 percent positivity, as he’s gone 7-1 across nine starts with a 2.72 ERA. Adam Jones would say to look at the full sample, and that shows Price at 9-5 with a 3.66 ERA - still good, but bumpy - with one of those bumps coming April 11 at Fenway against New York.
And that brings forth another valid concern: since joining the Sox, the lefty has tossed 43.2 innings against the Bombers and yielded 65 hits, 11 walks and 36 earned runs with a pedestrian 30 strikeouts. His July 16 appearance last year against the Yankees on the back end of a doubleheader was pretty outstanding: eight innings, seven hits, no earned runs, no walks, eight strikeouts. As with Sale, it’s always been there. But until Price strings together some big time performances in a Boston uniform, questions will linger.
You can send me a dozen tweets of advanced stats that say Price has been not-as-bad-as-you-think in the playoffs, but ultimately, it’s about results. Pitchers can’t fully control wins and losses, but they can put their team in a position to win. The fact is that Price has withered against the Yankees, while Sale hasn’t been able to get it done in the second half. So with the season just past the midway point comes the opportunity for Boston’s two money pitchers to announce their presence with authority in the AL East, to go on the road, shut down New York’s bats (minus Sanchez) and make a statement.
Fourteen summers ago this week, Derek Jeter (probably unnecessarily) crashed into some stands while an injured Nomar Garciaparra sat and the Yankees swept the Sox in the old House That Ruth Built. Three weeks later, those same Red Sox found their identities at Fenway as Bill Mueller took Mariano Rivera deep and Jason Varitek, dressed for the joust event on American Gladiators, bopped Alex Rodriguez on the nose. And then they won the World Series! It wasn’t that simple - as well all know, they had to dig out of a substantial hole in the ALCS that autumn. But it was a victory in the season-long psychological battle that only served to steel their resolve (along with a few shots of Jack Daniel’s) when the chips were down.
This series is a chapter in the story of the 2018 Red Sox, for which we don’t yet know the ending. The characters of J.D. Martinez, Chris Sale and David Price? Not fully developed.
Both the Red Sox and Yankees are on pace to blow past 100 wins, something that hasn’t happened to two teams in the same division since the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics in 2001 (worth noting that the AL featured four teams with 96 or more losses that season). Nobody wants to get stuck in a Wild Card spot and the relative ignominy of a one-game playoff in October. Managers often temper expectations by saying that all 162 games count the same, whether they’re in April against the Orioles, or down the stretch.
But this series feels pretty important. The stars have aligned, now let’s play ball.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.
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