If there's an odd feeling to this weekend's four-game set between the Yankees and Red Sox in the Bronx, it's because the last time these two teams met this late in the season without either one of them holding first place in the AL East was September 1997, when the Orioles won the division, the Yankees won the Wild Card, and the Red Sox finished 20 games out in fourth place. Entering tonight's game, the second place Red Sox are 3.5 games behind the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays, with the Yankees another four games behind the Sox in third place.
The Yankees could pull into a second-pace tie with the Sox by sweeping this weekend's series, but we all know that's not going to happen. Instead the Yankees will hope to take three of the four games, which would pull them within two games of the Sox in the standings. The Sox have lost their last five games to the Astros and Rays, but four of those were one-run losses and the last was decided by a 3-1 score. Still, there's a vulnerability there, much of which has to do with the Red Sox road performance this year.
In a season that has thus far seen abnormally poor performances by road teams in general, the Red Sox have been a primary offender, dominating opponents at Fenway with a .756 winning percentage, but struggling mightily outside of Boston, with a .413 winning percentage elsewhere. Their current 1-5 road trip and 0-6 record when visiting the Rays have a lot to do with that, but so does a pitching staff that has allowed 1.87 runs per game more on the road than at home.
Just looking at the four starters the Yankees are scheduled to face this weekend, Jon Lester, who goes tonight, has an ERA more than a two runs higher on the road than at home. Rookie Justin Masterson, who will face Mike Mussina on FOX on Saturday, adds nearly a run and a third to his ERA on the road, and Tim Wakefield, who will start against Joba Chamberlain in Sunday night's capper, has an ERA more than 70 points higher on the road. In the bullpen, three of Jon Papelbon's four blown saves this season and 10 of the 13 runs he's allowed have come on the road, and Craig Hansen's road ERA is nearly two and a half times his mark at Fenway.
Those losses are tempered somewhat by the fact that Josh Beckett, who starts tomorrow night, and releivers David Aardsma, Hideki Okajima, and Javier Lopez (ignore the ERA, look at his peripherals) have actually been better on the road than at home, but with the offense similarly shedding more than a run off it's home average when wearing road grays, winning on the road has proven a struggle for the Red Sox this year.
The Sox have been to the Bronx once already this season, splitting a two-game set in mid-April. The Sox scored 16 runs in those two games, half of which came against Chien-Ming Wang in the game the Yankees won. The Boston win was largely due to a strong outing by road warrior Josh Beckett and Mike Mussina's inability to retire Manny Ramirez (two at-bats, two homers, three runs).
The recipe for a series win would thus appear to be winning the three games not started by Beckett and having Mike Mussina pitch around Ramirez on Saturday. The trouble with the latter idea is that the man behind Ramirez, Mike Lowell, has a .579/.600/1.158 line in 20 career plate appearances against Mussina, which dwarfs Ramirez's .280/.333/.630 career line in 108 PA against Mussina. Still, the key seems to be to beat Lester tonight with Andy Pettitte on the hill, win the Chamberlain/Wakefield matchup on Sunday, and hope to pull out one of the remaining two.
That doesn't sound so tough. Pettitte has bee fantastic in his last four starts, posting this line: 4-0, 27 IP, 19 H, 2 HR, 7 BB, 23 K, 1.00 ERA, 0.96 WHIP. Lester gave up six runs in five innings against the Astros in his last start and hasn't faced the Yankees since his rookie season of 2006, when he was lit up for seven runs in 3 2/3 innings. Then again, Lester will be fresh as he threw just 76 pitches in Houston and had a 1.63 ERA in his four starts prior to that (three of them came in Fenway, but the best came against the slugging Phillies on the road).
Melky Cabrera returns to center field tonight. Brett Gardner is on the bench and could be a very valuable late-inning weapon in a close game. Wilson Betemit stays at first base against the lefty Lester with Jason Giambi at DH.