NEW YORK -- Lest anyone forget, the Yankees finished six games behind the Red Sox last season. New York is now 6½ games in front. The pendulum has swung, or, as former Sox pitcher Dennis Eckersley once noted, the worm has turned.
"We have a long part of our season left," Red Sox catcher and captain Jason Varitek said following last night’s late-inning meltdown that produced a 5-2 loss to the Yankees. "We have too good of character on this team [to continue falling apart]."
No argument there.
The question is whether the Sox have enough talent.
Let’s be honest, folks. The Red Sox have a long way to go and they appear to be heading in the wrong direction at supersonic speed. From the end of last season until now, New York has blown right past them. For all of the talk about the depth of the Red Sox pitching entering this season -- and the Sox still have good depth long term -- the Yankees will return next year with a group built around CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and the ageless Mariano Rivera. Matched against a Boston lineup that suddenly seems to be aging at a tenfold rate, that looks like a mismatch. It was certainly a mismatch over the weekend, and it leaves Red Sox pitchers at an enormous disadvantage given a Yankees lineup that includes Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Robinson Cano, among others. Rodriguez has missed 30 games this season and, even in the wake of early-season hip surgery, still has as many home runs (21) as anyone on the Red Sox. For that matter, so does Johnny Damon.
And before anyone suggests that Damon has benefited solely from the laughable right field at Yankee Stadium, let’s remember that his game-tying home run last night was a laser that landed in the Yankees bullpen, just to the right of the 385-foot mark. Even fireballing young righthander Daniel Bard couldn’t get his fastball by Damon. Over the last three years of a contract during which Red Sox officials believed Damon would be grossly overpaid, Damon has more hits (424 to 311), runs scored (267 to 222), home runs (50 to 42) and RBIs (199 to 171) than J.D. Drew, who makes an average of $1 million more per season (edge Drew, $14 million to $13 million) and is signed for two more years. Damon, by the way, will be a free agent in the fall.
Oh, and did we mention that the Red Sox rank 13th among the 14 American League teams in on-base percentage from the leadoff spot since Damon departed? Damon might not be hitting leadoff for the Yankees anymore -- he bats second -- but he certainly could do it for the Red Sox.
Fine, so the Yankees bought a sizable chunk of their team. What else is new? No one in Boston was crying about that last year or in 2007, 2005, or 2004. This particular whine seems to come up only when the Sox lose. Going forward, the greatest concern about the competition between the Sox and Yankees is the matchup between Red Sox hitters and Yankees pitchers, largely because the Red Sox don’t seem to have a lot of options. The free-agent market is thin. The farm system is suspiciously devoid of impact hitters. The only way the Red Sox are going to get more bats is through trade, and that means giving up significant pitching talent at the majors or minors.
Think about it: Jason Bay is a free agent and Jason Varitek will be 38 next spring. Mike Lowell is 35 and still dealing with effects of hip surgery. The Sox have major problems at shortstop (good luck filling that one), and Drew and David Ortiz -- no spring chickens they -- are having disappointing years. Even with the addition of Victor Martinez, the Sox could have as many as five spots in the lineup in need of potential upgrading come November.
Now does everyone understand why the Sox should have thrown everything they had at Teixeira last winter?
Months ago, before this season even began, we all knew that offense could be a potential problem for this team. It’s one thing to score runs against the Baltimore Orioles of the world; it’s another thing entirely to score them against teams like Tampa Bay, New York or even Toronto. Including the Sox, all of those teams rank in the top eight in the AL in pitching. And though the Yankees rank precisely eighth, New York has a 3.78 ERA during the aforementioned three-month sample that began May 10. That number ranks first in the league during that span.
Admittedly, as both Varitek and Dustin Pedroia said last night, there is still a lot of baseball to be played this season. The Red Sox have 52 games remaining, which essentially qualifies as one-third of their season. The problem is that the Red Sox are going to see a lot more good pitching, beginning with Edwin Jackson tonight in the opener of a four-game series against the Detroit Tigers. On Thursday, the Sox will oppose Justin Verlander. Between now and the end of the season, the Sox also will have 21 more games against the Yankees (six), Jays (nine) and Rays (six), which means more of Sabathia and Burnett, Matt Garza, David Price, and Roy Halladay, not to mention Chamberlain, James Shields, and others.
And for what it’s worth, the challenge isn’t going to get any easier next year, either.
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