THE NEW YORK YANKEES – year in and year out the team with the highest payroll in baseball – are not accustomed to being cast in the role of underdog.
But that’s exactly what they will be when they renew their annual rivalry with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park this weekend.
For the best part of a century, the Red Sox had to live in the shadow of the “Evil Empire.” But that’s all changed in the new millennium.
The last of the Yankees’ 26 World Series titles came in 2000. Since then, the Sox have won two championships, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004 and the Colorado Rockies in 2007.
Diehard Yankees fans still feel the pain of losing the 2004 American League Championship Series 4-3 after winning the first three games.
The balance of power in the AL East has shifted up the Eastern Seaboard to Massachusetts. The Red Sox ended the Yanks’ nine-year winning run in 2007 and even though they only finished second last year, they still beat the Yankees to the wild card.
New York fans are not used to such mediocrity. That’s why the Steinbrenner family said to hell with the economic depression and sanctioned spending totaling $423.5 million on three free-agent acquisitions during the winter.
Red Sox still in the ascendancy
Of course, money is no guarantee of renewed success. Both the Yanks and Sox were humbled by the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.
It’s still way too early to make any firm judgments about what will happen in 2009. But we should get a few more clues over the next three days.
The 9-6 Yanks have won their last three games, but that’s nothing compared to Boston, who have recovered from a 2-6 start to win their last seven…and by a margin of 55-20.
Despite the loss of Manny Ramirez, the Sox still have a batting lineup with patience and power.
In contrast, the Yankees’ batting is not quite as deep as it used to be, especially without Alex Rodriguez, who is currently rehabbing after hip surgery. First baseman Mark Teixeira can expect a similar reception to the one he received in Baltimore after rejecting both the Orioles and Red Sox in favor of signing with New York.
The Yankees have placed more emphasis on improving their starting pitching this season. So far, it has failed to pan out quite the way they planned.
AJ Burnett and Andy Pettitte have delivered. But CC Sabathia has again struggled in the month of April, Joba Chamberlain has yet to prove he’s as good a starter as he is a reliever, and Chien-Ming Wang has been worse than awful.
Pitchers must match up to Beckett and Lester
Chamberlain goes up against Jon Lester tomorrow night. He’ll be followed by Burnett v Josh Beckett and Pettitte v Justin Masterson. So even with the Yanks' upgrades, it’s advantage Red Sox.
The Yankees are hoping Sabathia and Burnett will do for them what Beckett and Lester have done for Boston: be consistent aces.
There’s no substitute for solid starting pitching, especially in October, and the chances of the Yankees recapturing former glories hinge on a settled rotation.
They need their starters to go seven innings on a regular basis so they can hand a lead over to Brian Bruney and Mariano Rivera.
So it’s seconds out and round one of the annual 18-game slugfest between two of baseball’s heavyweights.
They finished dead level at 9-9 in 2008, but over the last seven regular seasons, the Yankees lead 68-63. Any advantage gained by either team could be especially significant this year.