Hoping to clean up with sweep
Evil Empire Falls? Revenge of the Jed-I Hoyer? Sweep Surrender?
Sure, it's April, and we know that through the years the springs and summers have often belonged to Boston, only to have autumns owned by New York.
But there's smug satisfaction here in the Hub this morning. The Red Sox have the Yankees on the run, and tonight they could sweep the first season series between the century-old rivals.
Saturday in the park saw the Red Sox pulverize Yankees youngster Jeff Karstens, and as the 7-5 victory unfolded, it was hard not to think about the prospect of a sweep. The $103 Million Man, Daisuke Matsuzaka, gets the ball for the Sox tonight, while the Yankees' chucker will be 24-year-old lefty Chase Wright, making his second start in the big leagues.
The Yankees are playing without left fielder Hideki Matsui and catcher Jorge Posada. Johnny Damon (sore back) was on the shelf yesterday until the ninth. Gary Sheffield has taken his wall-wrecking bat to Detroit. The Yankees have four starters on the disabled list and four rookies in the rotation. Mariano Rivera has blown two of two save opportunities.
"I don't think there's any revenge," said Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis. "We can't worry about last year. This is a whole new year. We're just playing for 2007. We can't worry about the past."
Sox manager Terry Francona and his players are right to minimize the magnitude of this weekend. There's another series in New York next weekend, 15 more games against the Bombers after tonight, and five-plus months of baseball still ahead.
But there's a lot of satisfaction in the Red Sox owner's box and in the baseball ops office on Yawkey Way. The Red Sox were humiliated by the Yankees here last August. The five-game sweep effectively ended the Sox' season, inspired Manny Ramírez to stop playing for the rest of the year, and exposed flaws of logic and gaps of talent in the House of Boston Baseball.
The Yankee sweep taught the Sox to be aggressive, not passive, when it comes to player acquisition. It reminded them that you need lefthanders in your bullpen when you play New York. Most of all, it embarrassed the front office into spending competitively with the Yankees. No more crying about the Yankee payroll -- not when you charge the highest prices in baseball, not when you regularly raid the rosters of the A's, Marlins, and Diamondbacks of the world.
And so the Boston winter of 2006-07 yielded the best pitcher money could buy, a $70 million right fielder, and an expensive new shortstop. The bullpen was padded with veteran (read: expensive) help. The "building for the future" mantra was junked in favor of the late George Allen's "future is now" philosophy.
Today the Sox sit in first place with an 11-5 record, three games ahead of New York. We don't know what the standings will look like in September, but right now it's obvious the Yankees are ripe to be roadkill.
Young Mr. Karstens had no chance yesterday. His appearance in this game spoke to the pathetic state of Yankee pitching. Sure, they've had some bad luck, but in the old days George Steinbrenner would have publicly pummeled his "baseball people" if he saw a starting rotation with four rookies pitching for the team with a major league-leading ($185 million) payroll.
If things go Boston's way tonight, and for the rest of the season, then Friday night's turnaround 7-6 win will be cited as a rare "crucial" April game. The Sox had pretty much conceded that one. Jonathan Papelbon (nifty strikeout of Derek Jeter on a 97-mile-per-hour heater yesterday) wasn't going to pitch, and there didn't seem to be any hope when the Yankees carried a 6-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth.
Joe Torre was forced to manage that game as if it were the seventh game of the World Series. Pinch running for Jason Giambi in the eighth? Asking Rivera to make a five-out save? Torre knew it was New York's best (only?) chance for a W this weekend. Then it all blew up. Sox owner John Henry said he was as nervous as he'd ever been at a baseball game. (In April? What about the Octobers of 2003 and 2004?)
And now Hideki Okajima is Boston's most popular No. 37 lefty since Bill Lee (and all this time we thought Okajima was brought here to be Dice-K's stable pony, a baseball version of Pumpkin, the horse who roomed next to Seabiscuit to keep the great horse company). And a sweep feels imminent.
It's too early to get cocky. The Red Sox have finished behind the Yankees 11 years in a row. Things could be vastly different in September. But a sweep would be pretty sweet in the wake of the wicked weekend that wrecked the Sox late last summer.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.