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Time to talk some baseball

July 11, 2011

Have Kevin Youkilis and his Red Sox teammates even kicked into high gear yet this season?

If you’re not a baseball fan, stop here. It’s time to talk baseball.
The All-Star break isn’t just a respite for players. The short vacation gives baseball fans a few days off to think about the second half of the pennant race. That’s what we fans do. Can’t play so we sit around mulling schedules and statistics while the grass turns brown in our front yard.
In New England, when you mention pennant race, that can only mean one thing – Red Sox vs. the Yankees, with a little dose of the Tampa Bay Rays thrown in.
Boston holds a one-game lead over New York at the break. Tampa sits six games back in third place. The wild-card berth figures to come from East. Right now, the Yankees have six fewer losses than the next wild-card contender, which happens to be the Rays. If you give the Central division title to Detroit and the West to Texas, that leaves just the Angels (seven back of NY in the loss column) and Cleveland (also seven back) as wild-card hopefuls.
Tampa is in the middle of a 10-game stretch against the Yankees and Red Sox that is pivotal to its chances of staying close to its two very rich rivals. Tampa lost two of three in New York over the weekend. It hosts Boston for three games beginning Friday night and then entertains the Yankees for four games next Monday through Thursday.
The Rays figure to have their top pitchers lined up for Boston after getting three days off this week. That means Boston will see David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson. Boston will still be missing injured Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, who is almost ready to do a rehab in the high minors. No. 3 starter Josh Beckett (8-3, 2.27 ERA) has merely been among the best in baseball since mid-April.
The Yankees visit Toronto for four games beginning on Thursday, then head to Tampa for four more. New York has played six fewer road games than Boston. It faces a difficult second-half schedule filled with road games and four makeup contests that take away valuable off-days in August and September.
Tampa has played only 42 home games so far this season, winning just half of them. The Rays are 28-20 on the road. Go figure.
Once Tampa is done fooling around with the Red Sox and Yankees, we fans will be primed for the annual July 31 trade deadline follies, in which rival general managers Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman kick the tires and see if they need to make any moves. Which begs the question: Does Boston really need any help? The Red Sox have been winning games at nearly a .700 pace since losing 10 of their first 12 games to start the season. If it’s not broke, why fix it?
Boston’s offense, which had been dormant in April, now leads the major leagues in all the important categories – runs scored, slugging percentage, OPS, OBP. Here’s a breakdown between Boston and New York on offense. Bear in mind, New York will be missing slugger Alex Rodriguez for the next 4-6 weeks due to knee surgery. Also, Boston has played two more games than New York, so add about 10 runs to the Yankees’ total.
.810 OPS .784
482 Runs 455
.354 OBP .340
.456 SLG .444
Pitching? Boston’s starters have dominated New York’s hitters in the first nine games of the season series. Beckett is 3-0 against the Yankees. Lester is 2-0 and Buchholz 2-1. CC Sabathia is 0-3 against Boston so far (13-1 against everyone else).
Of course, health issues always come into play with pitchers. Lester pulled a muscle in his back during his last start but should be ready in 10 days. Buchholz has missed nearly one month with lower back issues. That bears watching. Beckett came out of his last start in the fifth inning with a tender hamstring. John Lackey pitches with a sore elbow. Tim Wakefield turns 45 on August 2. Dice-K underwent Tommy John surgery and won’t be back until the middle of next season, if then.
So what has Boston done to fill in the holes? The Red Sox promoted lefty Andrew Miller to fill in for Buchholz and Miller is 3-0 in four starts, despite a WHIP of 1.59. He should run out of gas just as Buchholz comes off the D.L. Wakefield took over for Dice-K and is 5-3 in 11 starts.
Alfredo Aceves, a guy the Yankees should never have given up on, is 4-1 with Boston, serving as the same versatile spot starter/long reliever who went 10-1 for New York in 2009. You can’t stress how much of an impact Aceves may have on this pennant race as the season heads to a conclusion.
The Yankees’ pitching revolves around Sabathia. CC is nine games over .500 and the rest of the staff is nine games over. New York’s most effective starter behind CC is 38-year-old Bartolo Colon, who is 6-4. AJ Burnett has pitched better than his record (8-7) but can’t be trusted with a lead. Rookie Ivan Nova went 8-4 before heading back to Scranton so that Phil Hughes could begin his comeback from a dead arm. Freddy Garcia fooled just about everyone except Boston in the first half.
Hughes is the key to New York’s chances of catching Boston. If he is mediocre, the Yankees will struggle to capture the wild card.
Speaking of key players, what happens if Carl Crawford returns to his old form for Boston in the second half? The league’s best offense suddenly becomes even better. Of course, Crawford has big shoes to fill. Replacement Josh Reddick is hitting .393 with an OPS of 1.102 in 61 ABs. That’s the same Josh Reddick who is hitting .230 in 191 ABs with Pawtucket this season.
The key thing to remember is few of us fans, and most baseball analysts, understand how a pennant race is won. The players know. They look up and down the dugout, and out in the bullpen, and realize each one of them is integral to a team’s success. One guy can lose a game. It usually takes 15 players to win one.
Boston has followed that formula again this season, getting help from its bench and the players down in Pawtucket. The Yankees were bailed out by aging veterans Colon and Garcia in the first half of the season. Can they be counted on as the innings pile up and the weather gets even hotter?
It’s easy to say the Yankees are the older team and will break down. The logical pick here is Boston, which may have not even shifted into high gear yet this season. Let’s see how it all plays out. As fans, we enjoy the luxury of watching the games on television, night after night, day after day, until the weather begins to cool in late September.
If you’re a baseball fan, there’s nothing better than having a team to follow in the pennant race. And here in New England, that seems to happen every summer.

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