In the big picture and the small, the New York Yankees clearly have some catching up to do. For as little as we can draw from one weekend in April, the Red Sox were better at the beginning, better in the middle, better at the end of this series.
As it turns out, maybe we all made a poor assessment of their pitching depth entering this season. Maybe, instead of having 12 quality pitchers, they have 14, or 16 . . .
"Or 18 or 20?" manager Terry Francona asked rhetorically following the team's 10th consecutive win and a perfect 9-0 homestand. "On nights like tonight, I think I'll get on the bus [to fly to Cleveland] and I'll call [Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson] and [director of player development] Mike Hazen. It's kind of like an organizational win. I think there were probably a lot of guys watching the game who were as excited as we were."
As for the rest of who watched what amounted to 12 hours of baseball over three very long days, we are well aware that the game is a never-ending test. We can nonetheless draw some conclusions from the season's first head-to-head meetings between clubs with combined payrolls approaching $350 million. The Yankees need bullpen help, plain and simple, or they will finish third in the ironclad American League East. With Brian Bruney on the disabled list and Joba Chamberlain in the starting rotation, New York couldn't match up with Jones and Bowden, let alone Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen. The best solution for New York would require Chien-Ming Wang's resurrection and the emergence of Phil Hughes, which might allow manager Joe Girardi to put Chamberlain back where he belongs, in the bullpen.
This brings us back to Boston and New York and the philosophies that have shaped both organizations, the identities that define these cities. In the long run, the Red Sox still could use someone like Mark Teixeira, but the Sox currently are operating with no major areas of weakness. General manager Theo Epstein has built the kind of self-sustaining machine he dreamed of, particularly with regard to the pitching, and Boston's depth in that area makes the Red Sox a potential trade partner with every other team in baseball. That will give the Sox the flexibility of addressing any holes.
The Yankees? Repairs might not be so easy. Trading away whatever young talent the Yankees possess seemingly would exacerbate the long-term problem, that being New York's shortage of help coming from the farm system. In his current role, even Chamberlain is starting to look rather ordinary. Faced with almost exactly the same choice three years ago at roughly this time, the Red Sox opted to keep Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen rather than employ him as a starter. They chose perhaps two or three dominating innings a week over maybe seven decent ones, a decision that has paid enormous dividends.
And if the Yankees opted for the other route because they have a greater need in the starting rotation, that speaks to Boston's greater efficiency in drafting players as well as developing them.
With regard to position players, too, the difference between Boston and New York is becoming striking. Over the weekend, while Brett Gardner was going 1 for 9 with two strikeouts and a run scored, Jacoby Ellsbury went 5 for 13 with five runs scored, a home run, and four steals, including one of home last night. Ellsbury still needs to prove that he can be consistent, but it is worth noting that he is actually a month younger than Gardner..
"We don't even squeeze very often, let alone that," Sox manager Terry Francona said when asked about Ellsbury's dynamic steal of home. "It certainly ignited the ballpark."
Even then, for all of the attention surrounding Ellsbury's trapeze act, his steal might not have been the most revealing play of the night. That might have come earlier, when Jason Bay stole second against Pettitte, renowned for being tough to run against. The steal was Bay's second of the season and made him an astonishing 48 of 52 since the start of the 2005 season, a success rate of 92.3 percent. What that speaks to, more than anything else, was Bay's "conscientious" nature -- that's Francona's word -- and the Red Sox' ability to scout, detect, and exploit. Bay was rather circumspect about what he detected in Pettitte's pickoff move, mechanics or tendencies, but the point is that he knows something.
"Some guys are fast enough to get into trouble. I'm not," Bay said. "I pick and choose my spots very carefully, like when I get a leg kick or a breaking ball count."
Does all of this mean that the Yankees absolutely, positively cannot and will not defeat the Red Sox this season? Of course not. There is a lot of baseball to be played. But at the moment, given injuries and other issues, the Red Sox are clearly the superior team with a deeper bullpen and headier players, and one of big reasons for that is some shrewd decision-making, on the field and off.
But then, as we all know, baseball very much can be a mental game.
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