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If they can make it here

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 8, 2009 11:00 AM

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Since you last saw them, the New York Yankees essentially have outplayed the Red Sox in every area: pitching, hitting, defense. Now the Yankees have to prove they can do it when the Red Sox share the field with them.

Snapshot: Sox and Yankees since they last met:
YankeesRed Sox
Runs per game5.74.9
Batting average.279.266
On-base pct..356.342
"Off the top of my head, we had a chance to win all of those games," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said over the weekend when asked about his club’s 0-5 record against the Sox this year. "I can’t remember [the specifics] of all five, but I remember that in most of them we had our chances. I didn’t feel like we got blown out. Things could have gone either way, but Boston found a way when we didn’t. Hopefully we can change that."

You want the particulars? Since the Red Sox left the new Yankee Stadium following a 7-3 win on May 5 -- it was a 4-3 game heading into the eighth -- each club has played 30 games. The Yankees are 20-10 with a 4.00 ERA and the Red Sox are 16-14, 3.96. The Yankees have scored 172 runs, the Red Sox 146. The Yankees have made 11 errors, the Red Sox 18.

In the standings, a Yankees team that was once 4.5 games out of first place and 3.5 games behind the Sox has since moved into first place by a half-game entering tonight's finale of a four-game series with Tampa Bay.

After tonight, the Yankees come to Boston, where they have not won a meaningful game since July 26 of last year. (New York took 2 of 3 on the final weekend of the 2008 regular season, but the games were worthless.) The Yankees continue to face the question the Red Sox faced for decades -- can they defeat their chief division rivals? -- and the pressure appears to be entirely on New York as the Yankees plan to arrive for a three-game series that begins at Fenway Park tomorrow night.

These are not the same Yankees you saw in late April and early May, though the New York bullpen remains a major concern. (More on that in a moment.) Behind the slow-starting Mark Teixeira (more on him tomorrow), the Yankees have been hitting most everything in sight, particularly in their ostentatious new home, which seems to have been modeled after a certain field in Williamsport, Pa. Like Teixeira, luxury-tax purchase CC Sabathia has found his stride in the last four or five weeks and the Yankees recently set a major league record for consecutive games without an error (18).

For all the things New York has improved upon in recent weeks, the defense stands out. In the five games against the Red Sox this year, the Yankees made seven errors -- including at least one in all five games -- and looked like a bad lounge act. Lately, the Yankees have been catching virtually everything within distance, a transformation that also relates directly to the moves they made during the offseason.

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While Teixeira was expected to be an enormous upgrade over Jason Giambi at first base, the biggest changes have come in center and right fields. Cashman went out of his way to laud the defensive play of center fielder Melky Cabrera and right fielder Nick Swisher, the latter of whom was acquired in an offseason trade with the Chicago White Sox. And then, of course, there was the return of third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who missed the first two Red Sox series in the wake of a steroids conviction and suddenly fashionable hip surgery.

Once Rodriguez came back, it seemed, the defense improved and the lineup got infinitely deeper. Save for the bullpen, even the pitching seemed to get straightened out.

"We’ve gotten healthier," Cashman said when asked about the biggest change in New York since early May. "Teixeira’s gotten on track and A-Rod has come back. We’ve played great defense. It’s been a bunch of different things. The addition of Teixeira and Swisher has significantly improved out defense on the right side of the field."

This brings us back to the bullpen, an ongoing problem that the Yankees have masked for the better part of the last month. Over the last two weeks, in particular, New York starters have averaged roughly 6 1/3 innings per start. Sabathia alone has averaged nearly eight innings per outing since the Red Sox last left New York. Yankees manager Joe Girardi has had the luxury of being far more selective with his bullpen, something that did not happen when the Red Sox teed off against Yankees relievers early in the year.

In this series, the performance of the Yankees starters will be critical. Girardi still has few reliable options in his bullpen, but he’ll be able to play matchups in the seventh while relying heavily on Mariano Rivera and Alfredo Aceves (4-1, 2.37 ERA since the last Sox series) in the last two innings to close out wins if the Yankees can get good performances from their starting pitchers.

If not? Batten down the hatches. Overall, the Red Sox rank first in the American League in bullpen ERA while the Yankees still rank 13th.

"I can’t tell you our bullpen’s fixed," Cashman admitted. "We’ve been winning and on this run because our starting pitching, defense and offense. I don’t know if [the bullpen] is sorted out. Early in the year, our starters were going five innings. Now they’re going seven or eight innings. Our bullpen was tired and beaten up."

Now, as luck would have it, the Red Sox are the ones looking a little battered. J.D. Drew missed the final two games of the weekend after getting a cortisone injection in his left shoulder. Yesterday, Jacoby Ellsbury jammed his right shoulder and had to leave the game. The Sox have had defensive issues at shortstop all year and, suddenly, have batted just .194 over their past five games.

Now, once again, the Yankees are coming into town.

For New York, this is the time to prove something.

Tony's Top 5

Favorite blog entries

The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
For 2011 Red Sox, there was plenty of blame to go around Oct. 1, 2011. The disgraceful collapse of the Red Sox stoked the fire in all of us.
Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
Thrill is back for Patriots Jan. 30, 2012. Another Super Bowl has even Bill Belichick musing.
You’ve got to believe June 15, 2011. On the morning of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, we all had reason to believe.
Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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