Red Sox-Yankees Rivalry Still Carries Some Juice
Friday, August 7, 2009
NEW YORK, Aug. 6 -- Aaron Boone's pennant-winning homer was six years and a whole stadium ago. The unprecedented comeback of 2004 was five years and a roster-turnover ago. David Ortiz's nightly clutch-job and Alex Rodriguez's nightly choke-job were both a steroid scandal ago. The days when a New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox series in August, with both teams in the throes of a pennant race, would make the whole sport seem to stand feels like a lifetime ago.
Until it's August again, and the first-place Yankees hold a narrow lead in the standings over the second-place Red Sox, and the New York tabloids are hyping the matchup on the back pages -- "SHOW 'EM THE BRONX!" reads The Post -- and Ortiz is striding to the plate in the new Yankee Stadium in the top of the first inning Thursday night to a long, loud chorus of boos and jeers.
It seems like an appropriate time to ask: Is the Rivalry still relevant? Does Yankees-Red Sox still stir the blood, move the dial, lead the 11 p.m. "SportsCenter"?
After all, the teams haven't met in October since that dramatic 2004 American League Championship Series, and last year the Yankees missed the playoffs altogether for the first time since 1993 -- causing them to reload over the winter with $423.5 million worth of free agent acquisitions.
Still, judging from the reception that greeted Ortiz on Thursday night -- a week after the revelation that he had tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003 -- the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is alive and well. Perhaps weary of seeing their own stars pegged with baseball's scarlet letters -- PED -- Yankees fans were merely delighting in the shoe being on the other foot.
But even more than that, it is at the intersection of the calendar and the standings where the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has reclaimed its relevance. A thorough 13-6 spanking of the Red Sox on Thursday night (featuring 26 hits, none of them by Ortiz) pushed the Yankees' lead in the AL East to 3 1/2 games over the Red Sox.
Not since August 18-21, 2006, when the Yankees zoomed from 1 1/2 games up to 6 1/2 games up by pulling off an epic five-game sweep at Fenway Park, have the teams met this late in the season separated by such a narrow margin in the standings.
"It's the time of year that makes it a little different," Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said. "You get to the last couple of months, and we're bunched together [in the standings], and every game becomes fairly important. Obviously, there's a lot more games after these four, but it's not like there's 120."
Gone, however, are the days when the AL East was the exclusive domain of the Yankees and Red Sox. Last year, the upstart Tampa Bay Rays won the division, keeping the Yankees out, then topped the Red Sox in the ALCS. And now, the Rays are at it again, having just swept a two-game series from the Red Sox to pull within 5 1/2 games of the Yankees' division lead entering Thursday, and three games behind the Red Sox.
The Yankees' win Thursday night marked their first over the Red Sox in nine tries this season, a story line that seemed incongruous with their surge to the division lead in the past three weeks, and provided evidence of how much has changed this summer.
The last of the Yankees' eight straight losses to the Red Sox, after all, came nearly two months ago when the teams last met in Boston -- at which time the Yankees were a largely incomplete team, owing to injuries and a faulty bullpen that has been almost completely rebuilt.
"To be totally honest with you, think we were playing them at a time when they had a lot of guys injured and they couldn't evenly match up [with] our team at the time," Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "Now I think is a totally different situation with their guys healthy."
Now, in fact, it's the Red Sox who are wounded in both body and psyche, having gone 7-10 in their past 17 games entering Thursday -- contributing to a flip-flop in the standings with the Yankees -- and seeing their vaunted pitching depth tested by Daisuke Matsuzaka's protracted absence and John Smoltz's ineffectiveness.
And while the trade-deadline acquisition of catcher-first baseman Victor Martínez from Cleveland both bolstered their offense and improved their lineup flexibility, a hamstring injury to left fielder Jason Bay forced first baseman Kevin Youkilis to borrow an outfielder's glove and man left field Thursday night for the first time in three years.
"We've had some guys go down," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said. "We've lost some pitching. And sometimes you're not in position to reel off eight or nine [straight wins]. Let's just be realistic. But [you try to] hold your own sometimes until guys are healthy. . . . We have guys who we feel like they'll figure out a way to get through it. How you handle those frustrations a lot of times defines your season."
If that's the case, then what are we to make of Ortiz, who has all the frustration he can handle? In addition to having what is by far his worst season since coming to Boston in 2003, he is also dealing with the fallout from last week's revelation. On Thursday afternoon, he met briefly with his agent, Diego Bentz, and new union chief Michael Weiner, after which the union announced Ortiz and Weiner would hold a joint news conference here Saturday to address the situation.
Ortiz, 33, is one of only three Red Sox players left from the team that pulled off that historic comeback from an 0-3 deficit to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, capping it off with a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals to bring Boston its first World Series title in 86 years.
Now, that October and that Ortiz both feel like ages ago. And while the Rivalry still has a chance of getting back to its 2004 pinnacle, it seems far less likely that Ortiz can.