Not-So-Lost Weekend

What a difference a weekend makes. On Friday night, the Red Sox shocked the Yankees by scoring two runs in the ninth inning off of Mariano Rivera, closing to within 2.5 games of the AL East lead. With the hard-charging Sox, who’d come into the Bronx all cowboy’d up, beating on Rivera for the second time in the two teams’ last three ballgames, the momentum was all with Boston, the threat of change atop the division palpable.

The Sox entered the weekend having won or broken even in nine straight series, at recent points winning 10 straight and 22 out of 25. They held an 8-5 edge on the Yanks in their head-to-head matchups, and were still riding the “message” sent from Jason Varitek’s fist to Alex Rodriguez’s mouth in that unforgettable July 24 brawl. They had gone 37-13 (.740) since that day. And while the Yankees had been playing good ball (31-18, a .632 pace since the two teams last met), they had allowed a 10.5 game lead to melt away in a month, showing themselves vulnerable not only in the rotation but also the bullpen. Rivera, the surest thing ever to wear pinstripes, had just been stunned again. Things didn’t look good.

But by the end of the weekend, the Yankees had emphatically reasserted their claim on the AL East title with back-to-back, double-digit drubbings of the Sox. The division lead, while not iron-clad, stood at 4.5 games at the end of Sunday. Barring a complete collapse by the Bombers, the only real shot the Sox have at the division title is to sweep the Yankees next week at Fenway. Not that it matters entirely; these two teams will be playing in October whichever way the wind blows. But still, when these two teams meet for a key September series, it’s a good ol’ fashioned grudge match worth watching.

I got a late start myself. On Friday night, I caught just a few pitches from Orlando Hernandez in between rain delays. Sitting in a bar with a couple of non-fan friends, occasionally glancing up at a close-captioned TV, the game still seemed eminently winnable with El Duque trailing only 1-0. Once Tanyon Sturtze materialized from underneath the Yankee Stadium tarp (“Children, avert your eyes! The beast with the 6.47 ERA has arisen!”), I changed my tune. “Get ‘em tomorrow, boys,” I muttered, pondering the bubbles in my beer.

I left the bar as the Yanks tied the score on a groundout, reaching home just in time to settle into my familiar groove on the couch before leaping out of it as John Olerud drilled a long homer off of Bronson Arroyo, the Sox cornrowed punk of a starter. The next batter, Miguel Cairo, hit what he believed to be a home run, but Manny Ramirez robbed him at the wall even as Cairo continued to trot around the bases, somewhat comically. A smiling Manny pointed at the Yankee dugout with both hands to say, “Gotcha!”

Even with the Yanks up 2-1 in the fifth, I was braced for disappointment with Sturtze in the game, and when he gave up a leadoff walk to David Ortiz and then a single to Trot Nixon I figured the Grim Forksman had come a-pokin’. But Jason “Suckerpunch” Varitek, who looked absolutely, laughably horrendous all weekend (0-for-10, 8 K), struck out and then Kevin Millar hit a checked-swing slow-roller which Sturtze snagged. He whirled and threw to second base to start a 1-4-3 double play, escaping the inning and receiving a thunderous ovation from the Bronx crowd. He drew an even bigger O when he departed in the seventh after striking out the first two hitters. Three-and-two-thirds innings, one hit, five Ks — an admirable proxy for El Duque on this particular night.

The ninth was slow-motion agony. Rivera walked Trot Nixon, who yielded to Dave Roberts, perhaps the fastest man in baseball. Roberts stole second as Varitek struck out, Millar was clipped by a pitch, and then Orlando Cabrera smacked a game-tying hit. Rivera rebounded to strike out Kevin Youklis, but Kenny Lofton, playing too far over in left-center, let Johnny Damon’s blooper bounce in front of him, scoring Millar’s pinch-runner, Gabe Kapler. Ugh. The Yanks proceeded looked awful against the Sox closer, especially Jason Giambi, who had no business flailing in such a situation. Foulke it…

If there was supposed to be a carryover effect the next day, it was more of a hangover for the Red Sox. They looked as though they’d left their best efforts on the barstool celebrating the night before. Derek Lowe, resurgent since the Sox traded Nomar Garciaparra and shored up their infield defense (5.52 ERA before the trade, 3.60 ERA since), started for the Sox and found trouble instantly. He walked Derek Jeter, loaded the bases with one out, and the Yanks just kept the line moving in the Nine-Eight Style, as we like to say around here. Nothing but singles, walks, twigs, nuts, berries, and bad decisions by the Sox newly-vaunted infield defense were needed to uncork a huge rally. Already trailing 3-0 and with men on first and third, Lowe made a boneheaded play as he fielded an Olerud grounder and threw to third base. The trouble was that he had no force there, only Bernie Williams scampering back; all hands safe, bases loaded. Then another grounder to Doug Mientkiewicz, who tried to start a 3-6-1 double-play. Olerud tumbled into second like Walter Sobchack rolling out of a moving car, Cabrera’s throw was wide, and two more runs scored to make it 5-0 Yanks.

Lowe’s nightmare continued, as he again walked Jeter to start the inning. Almost mercifully, A-Rod lined one off of his shin, giving Sox manager Terry Francona an easy excuse to pull his starter and bring in a reliever. But Terry Adams, left with a cleanup-in-aisle-nine mess, continued to get dinked into oblivion. Four singles, two of them in the infield, a steal, a wild pitch, a hit batsman, four more runs. In two innings of play, the Yanks were up 9-0 without hitting anything for extra bases.

They finally took care of that with a Bernie Williams homer in the fourth, and then a three-run A-Rod blast in the fifth. By then, the real intrigue in the ballpark had become Yankee starter Jon Lieber’s pursuit of a no-hitter. Some salt for those wounds? When Francona sent five new fielders — including the weak-hitting Pokey Reese and Ricky Gutierrez — into the ballgame in the sixth, the odds had to improve in Lieber’s favor.

Alas, it was not to be. With two outs in the seventh — as far as Lieber had ever been with a no-no — David Ortiz turned on a change-up, smashing it deep to left-center to take away both the no-hitter and the shutout. That’ll happen. Lieber continued to shut down the Sox, though he eventually got into a jam attempting to complete the game. A very uninspiring Paul Quantrill couldn’t close things out, leaving Scott Proctor to mop up. Still, the 14-4 win was a hearty rebuke to anybody who’d counted the Yanks out.

And if one ten-run victory against your closest rival is nice, two of them in a row are even nicer. On a crisp, sunny Sunday Mike Mussina was sharp from the get-go, and Pedro Martinez was not, and the Yanks, who usually let him run up his pitch count and wait him out, were hacking early. Gary Sheffield, counting down the hours until his long-awaited cortisone shots, launched a two-run homer off of Pedro in the first inning on the first pitch he saw, bringing up those “M-V-P!” chants. The Sox threatened in the second with men on first and second, but Alex Rodriguez speared a hot Orlando Cabrera liner and dove to third base for the force, the defensive play of the game.

Derek Jeter, also on a first pitch, added a solo blast in the third, his 22nd of the season. Jeter has been on a tear in September (.417/.476/.750) and he’s done an admirable job of rebounding from that early-season slump. But I bristle when I hear YES announcer Michael Kay, who leads the league in hot air, say time and time again that Jeter is having the best season of his career. Apparently 1999, when Jeter hit .349/.438/.552 with 24 homers and 102 RBI, is too distant a memory, but eighty points of OBP and another 80 of SLG ought to be enough for Kay to cram in his pie hole.

Boston scratched out a run in the fifth on a Cabrera double, a groundout and a Johnny Damon infield single, cutting the score to 3-1. In the top of the sixth, the cruising Moose got into his worst jam of the day, men on first and third with two outs, but he got Cabrera to hit a comebacker, one of three times Mussina ended the inning in such fashion. In the bottom of the inning, the Yanks broke out the Whup-Ass on Pedro. Bernie Williams led off with a walk, and then Jorge Posada, Pedro’s arch-nemesis dating back to last year’s ALCS if not longer, dinked one just over the leftfield wall, a shot hardly emphatic except in its cost to the Sox: two more runs, making the score 5-1.

Then the real fun started, as the Yanks bled Pedro on a day he clearly didn’t have his best stuff. A John Olerud walk, a Ruben Sierra double aided by Manny Ramirez’s failed attempt at a sliding catch, and then a Miguel Cairo liner down the first base line tacked two more runs onto Martinez’s bill and sent him to the showers, serenaded by a classic Bronx cheer. Cairo would come around to score, the eighth run charged to Pedro on the day. The Yanks plated three more runs on the Sox relievers, making the final 11-1. “You kids run along back to Fenway now for your little tea party,” they seemed to be saying.

• • •

These two teams have now played 16 games in 2004, with the Sox holding a 9-7 edge. Smothered in hype yet nonetheless memorable, each series has had a distinct aftertaste, with one team coming away distinctly more pumped-up than the other. Recall their respective sweeps of each other in the season’s first half, and now their more recent “message games” amid defending home turf just when it appeared they had flatlined.

But make no mistake: the Yanks and Sox are two very evenly-matched teams whose offenses and defenses are both volatile. On any given day, each of them is quite capable of hanging a ten-spot on their opponent or throwing their own cringe-worthy effort into the mix. The key for both teams will remain who can avoid the latter more often.

The most impressive thing coming out of the series is this: a Yankee pitching staff that has seen some shaky days lately held the hottest and best-hitting team in the American League to eight runs over three games, and three of those runs came during garbage time on Saturday. They scored 27 themselves on the weekend, continuing their own hot hitting, and held a 25-5 edge after rising off the mat from Friday night’s knockdown.

I said this about ten days ago: “…going forward into the division race and the postseason, for my money the single most important indicator as to how the Yanks will fare is the performance of Mike Mussina.” Mussina has been electric since then, notching two more wins and allowing one run in 15 innings while striking out 19. And while his previous triumphs had been over those twin terrors of the AL, Tampa Bay and Kansas City, beating Boston is something worth noting. Ladies and gentlemen, the Moose is loose: four runs in 30 innings, 33 Ks against only 2 walks and 17 hits. Expect him to get the ball to open the playoffs.

On the other side of the weekend’s matchup, the Sox have now lost 14 of the last 20 games against the Yanks in which Pedro has started. On Sunday, YES ran a graphic comparing how well Yankee starters have matched up against him since June 4, 2000, and I jotted the numbers down:

       W-L  ERA   IP     K   HR  Bullpen

Pedro 5-6 2.93 122.2 161 10 1-7, 4.53 ERA
Yanks 7-5 2.95 122.0 112 6 6-1, 2.88 ERA

As I’ve said before, I think the Pedro mystique, insofar as Martinez being some kind of Yankee killer, is as dead as the Bambino. For all of his bluster and machismo — and is there a more transparent display of fear than his puffy-chestedness when it comes to the Yanks? — his decreased stamina (no more than 7.1 innings against them since ’01) usually spells his doom. He’s slipped a bit, as evidence by that 3.69 ERA he’s now carrying, his highest since his days in Montreal, but he’s still a great pitcher sometimes. Those times just don’t seem to come when the pinstripes are in the same area code.

And he appears to be leaking brain fluid. Get a load of this headline: “Martinez says: ‘YES Network wants me to die’. He’s starting to sound like Grandpa Abe Simpson: “Michael Kay broke my teeth. The nurses are stealing my money. This thing on my neck is getting bigger.” According to the article, the Jheri-curled diva is in a huff because the Yankee announcer speculated about what might be ailing him:

Pedro Martinez already had a complex about people thinking he is the most hated man in New York.

Now, after hearing that commentators on the Yankees’ YES Network reported that an ailing back may have contributed to yesterday’s awful performance, he seems to have developed a complex about them, too.

“YES Network wants me to die,” he said.

But despite the imminent threat posed by the sports network, Martinez isn’t worried.

… Martinez said he has been struggling with his command for about three starts now –he allowed five walks in his previous start — and although it is improving, he has work to do before he faces the Yankees again, probably Friday night at Fenway Park. But he also made sure to mention the blustery conditions.

“The wind played a big factor on those (home run) balls,” he said. “It was windy and dry and then you don’t get a couple of calls you want. I imagine it will take some more work.”

Oh, and the YES announcers who surmised back trouble? Martinez seemed surprised about it, but he never denied he was hurting. He simply told reporters, “Go ask them.”

With sharp observations — his statement that New York loves to hate him is the only thing he got right all weekend — and witty retorts like that, it’s no wonder Martinez is so revered here in the Big Apple. Hey Pedro, why don’t you go wake the Bambino… or better yet, just re-sign with Boston so that lovely hatred can continue.

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