Last week's two-game series in Fenway Park was disappointing as scheduled and became even more so after the second game was rained out. The three-game series that kicks off tonight in the Bronx, however, should make up for it and then some, thanks in large part to some fantastic pitching match-ups. Both teams are skipping a starter due to yesterday's off day (Wright for the Yankees, Clement for the Red Sox), and the Red Sox fifth starter/place holder Lenny DiNardo started on Sunday, leaving us with the three best starters on each team for this week's series, the highlight of which, at least on paper, should be tomorrow's pairing of rejuvenated aces Curt Schilling (5-1, 3.02 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 45 K, 7 BB, 6 quality starts in 7 games) and Mike Mussina (5-1, 2.35 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 42 K, 8 BB, quality starts in all 7 games).
Coming into the season one would have thought that Thursday's matchup of soft-tossers Shawn Chacon and Tim Wakefield would be the most likely of these three games to be a high-scoring shootout, but given their performances over the past few weeks, tonight's match-up of fireballers Randy Johnson and Josh Beckett could be the wildest game of them all. In his last three starts, Beckett has posted this combined line:
16 IP, 16 H, 18 R, 17 ER, 6 HR, 10 BB, 11 K, 9.56 ERA
Meanwhile, in three of his last four starts, Johnson has done this:
15 IP, 22 H, 18 R, 18 ER, 2 HR, 8 BB, 8 K, 10.80 ERA
That's ugly enough in and of itself, but consider that, despite all of those crooked numbers, the two have combined to go 2-2 in those six games thanks to their offenses, which have scored 15 runs for Beckett and a whopping 32 for Johnson in those three games. That would seem to place the over-under on total runs scored tonight somewhere around 15.
Incidentally, the Yanks and Sox are still tied for first in the AL East, with the Yanks still ahead by percentage points and a game in the loss column due to having played two fewer games. Both teams have won five of their last six. The Sox have won their last four, the Yanks their last five and seven of their last eight.
The Red Sox roster has undergone only one meaningful change since last week, with righty reliever Manny Delcarmen having been demoted during yesterday's off day to be replaced before tonight's game by another minor league reliever, most likely either righty Jermaine Van Buren or lefty Mike Holtz. The one other change is that Hee Seop Choi was activated from his minor league rehab assignment and optioned down to Pawtucket.
As always, I'm perplexed by the Choi move as he's being kept off the 25-man roster by 38-year-old J.T. Snow, who has seen even less action than Andy Phillips in a similar role as an opposite-handed first baseman/defensive replacement. Snow has just three singles on the year and is hitting .158, though he has a .360 OBP due to five walks in 24 plate-appearances. Choi, meanwhile, hit .276/.434/.421 in 22 rehab games with the triple-A Paw Sox.
I suppose the logic is that since Snow never gets to play, and first baseman Kevin Youkilis is actually performing better against righties anyway, Choi would just rot on the bench. Better to have Snow, a superior defender who otherwise rots anyway, doing that than the high-potential Choi. Still, it's frustrating to see a talented hitter like Choi spend his age-27 season trapped in triple-A. Not that I don't have practice. (Incidentally, there was some discussion of Choi having to clear waivers in order to return to the minors but it appears he had an option leftwhich means the Sox can bring him up and send him down at will all year. [Update: After digging further into the option rules it appears Choi did have to pass through waivers because, though he did have an option left, he also has three years of major league service time. So not only did the Sox option him down, but they exposed him to waivers in order to do it, and to make things a zillion times worse, the Yankees didn't put in a claim. Carlos Pena is hitting .200/.384/.309 in Columbus, there's no reason not to give him the heave-ho in favor of Choi, especially as it would get him away from the Red Sox in the process. Someone please explain to me why Doug Mientkiewicz is a starting major league first baseman and Hee Seop Choi can't get claimed off waivers. Anyone? Bueller?])
Finally, with a stint on the 15-day DL still a possibility for Gary Sheffield due to the wrist injury he suffered after colliding with Shea Hillenbrand at first base a little over a week ago (he's played in just two games since, going 0 for 5 in his lone start), I'd like to throw my support behind Kevin Thompson, who appears to be vying with Melky Cabrera for what could be a two-week stint as the Yankees starting right fielder. True, Cabrera has performed better thus far this year in triple-A (.385/.430/.566 to Thompson's .286/.382/.429), but I really don't want to see Cabrera in the majors prior to September. Still just 21, Cabrera could have a real future with the Yankees and I'd much rather see him left alone to continue his development without being jerked around like he was last year, when he went from Trenton through Columbus and up to the majors in just a couple of weeks only to be quickly returned to the Clippers and finish the year back in double-A. Thompson, meanwhile, is 26 and, though he projects to be a fourth outfielder at best, he should be filling that role with the Yankees this year in place of Bernie Williams, who has been hot of late, but has had just two of his twenty hits this season go for extra bases and has as many walks as J.T. Snow who has had only 28 percent as many plate appearances. In addition to wanting to coddle Cabrera some, I'd like to see Thompson come up and make Joe Torre seriously reconsider his outfield depth chart.
Speaking of which, further amunition for blasting Tanyon Sturtze off the roster: Ramiro Mendoza has finally finished his extended spring training. In his first outing in Columbus he pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and walking none while striking out three. Mendoza has been nothing but excellent since returning to action last August and gives the Yankees a third candidate for Sturtze's bullpen slot along with the recently demoted Matt Smith and the Godot-like Colter Bean (0.48 ERA in 18 2/3 IP with 23 K).
Update:Peter Abraham is reporting that Sheff will indeed hit the DL today and that Melky will get the call from Columbus. I'm rather discouraged by this news as I think the team is jumping on a hot streak rather than letting Cabrera truly develop into a major-league-ready hitter. That said there's a strong parallel to Robinson Cano's path through the minors.
Cano first hit triple-A at age 21 in his fourth minor league season. He struggled in a half season there (.259/.316/.403 in 216 at-bats), but started the following season on a hot streak in Columbus (.333/.368/.574 in 108 ABs), was called up and handed a starting job and hasn't looked back. Cabrera first hit triple-A at age 20 in his third minor league season. He struggled in a quarter season there (.248/.309/.366 in 101 ABs), but started the following season on a hot streak in Columbus (.385/.430/.566 in 122 ABs), and now, almost exactly a year after Cano, he has been called up to, if Torre is true to his word, start in right field. If he succeeds, he could stay there, pushing Sheffield to DH upon his return. That said, Cabrera remains a year ahead of Cano's schedule (yet another data point behind my belief that he should be left in Columbus this year) and Cano didn't start to hit until his tenth game last year. With Sheffield expected to come off the DL as soon as he's eligible, Melky may not get a chance to stick.
Curiously, of the six games Cabrera played for the Yankees last year, two of them were against the Red Sox. In fact, it was the Trot Nixon single that he played into an inside-the-park home run in Fenway that essentially ended his audition with the big club.