Look, folks, I had to be a Debbie Downer here, but the Yankees string of AL East titles is going to come to an end this year. Even if the Yanks sweep the Red Sox in Fenway this weekend, they'll still be 10.5 games out in June with just 6 games left against the first-place Sox. And what are the odds that the Yanks are going to sweep the Sox after loosing four of five to the Angels and Blue Jays?
No, my friends, it is time to focus on the Wild Card race, where the Yankees trail the Tigers by seven games with eight head-to-head matchups remaining.
That doesn't mean that this weekend's series doesn't matter. Every win counts. Its just that beating the Red Sox no longer means any more, and actually means a hair less, than beating one of the other seven teams ahead of them in the wild card hunt (which, incidentally, includes the Blue Jays).
Not much has changed since these two teams met in the Bronx at the beginning of last week. Not even the pitching matchups. The Red Sox wound up losing eight games in May, two of them to the Yankees and one more since. Josh Beckett returned to the rotation on Tuesday with a stellar outing against the hard-hitting Indians, and Manny Delcarmen is back in the minors. For the Yankees, Kevin Thompson replaces the disabled Jason Giambi on the roster and the plan for the immediate future is to have Johnny Damon be the everyday DH and Melky Cabrera be the everyday center fielder. Meanwhile Matt DeSalvo was farmed out in favor of Chris Britton, who has been dominating the International League. Britton or another reliever will have to be removed from the roster on Monday to make way for the return of Roger Clemens.
Tim Wakefield vs. the Yankees in two starts this season: 0-2, 7.84 ERA, 10 1/3 IP, 14 H, 9 R, 3 HR, 11 BB, 5 K
Chien-Ming Wang vs. the Red Sox in two starts this season: 1-1, 4.38 ERA, 12 1/3 IP, 13 H, 6 R, 2 HR, 6 BB, 6 K
When these two last faced off a week ago Monday in the Bronx, Wang surprised everyone by utilizing his secondary pitches, particularly his slider, to strike out five Red Sox in 6 1/3 innings. In his last start against the contact-hitting Angels, Wang struck out six in eight innings to give him 11 Ks in his last 14 1/3 innings, or 6.91 K/9 over his last two starts. Despite the change in approach, his extreme ground-ball rate was largely unaffected as he got 24 ground balls in those two games against 11 flies (the fly ball total is typical for him, while the missing grounders all turned in to less risky strikeouts). Wang struck out 7.06 men per nine innings over his minor league career. Brandon Webb rode an extreme ground-ball rate and a 6.82 K/9 to the NL Cy Young award last year. If Wang's new strikeout rate holds, he may have just made the leap.