Rivals in Exile: First Blood

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in Rochester, New York. The similarities pretty much end there.

Ben was born in Springfield, Massachusetts; Larry’s from Long Island. Ben’s not particularly into politics or religion; Larry will talk endlessly about both — whether you’re interested or not. Ben is easy-going; Larry throws furniture.

But more than anything else, they are defined by the teams they love. Larry is a proud citizen of the Yankees’ Evil Empire, while Ben lives and dies with the Red Sox. With two great writers like this living in the same city, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

Friday Evening

Ben Jacobs: Welcome back, Larry. I hope the Yankees‘ early-season struggles didn’t cause you to break any furniture or anything, although I suspect it’s too early in the season for you to get really upset unless they lose all four of these games to the Red Sox.

Myself, I’ll be pissed off if the Red Sox lose three of four, but I won’t be truly worried unless they get swept. And looking foward to next weekend as well, I won’t be completely unnerved before the end of April unless Boston loses six of seven games to the Yankees. And I don’t think that will happen.

It’s about an hour before the first game of the series and I know that I mentioned last week that I think it’s too early for the Red Sox and Yankees to be playing against each other, but things do seem to be building up to this game.

First, today is exactly six months after Game Seven of the ALCS. Second, the schedule has worked out in such a way that fans of both teams are desperate to see games of any kind.

Since both teams won on Easter Sunday, the Yankees have had two off-days and a rainout, and the Red Sox have had two rainouts and an off-day. That means each team has played just one game in the past four days, and now they’re playing against each other each of the next four days. Should be fun.

Larry Mahnken: Or excruciating, depending on how the games go.

I’m not too worried about the Yankees’ slow start, which is mostly a function of poor hitting. It’s not likely that everyone but Giambi and Posada forgot to hit over the offseason, and they’ll break out of it in a couple of weeks. Mussina’s slow start doesn’t trouble me yet, since he was obviously screwed up by the Japan trip, but a solid start on Saturday is fairly crucial.

Vazquez looked great against the White Sox, and even though it was three games against the Devil Rays, Kevin Brown has looked even more dominant than I thought he would be. The back of the rotation has looked crappy, but they’ve each only gotten one start, so let’s give that a couple more weeks, too.

I see this weekend as being slightly advantageous for the Yankees, what with the injuries to Nomar and Trot, and the way the pitching matchups shake out. Boston doesn’t have Pedro going, and they’re matching Bronson Arroyo against Brown. Wakefield, Schilling and Lowe are all capable of shutting down any lineup, so it’s not like we should expect the Yankees to sweep, or even win three, but it’s a slight advantage.

Speaking of Pedro, you can’t tell me you’re not worried about him. Yeah, he’s had bad starts in April before, even a couple of bad starts, but this year he’s clearly lost a lot off of his fastball, and I think the days of Pedro “Win Day” Martinez are gone forever. Schilling’s an ace, but a huge part of the optimism in Beantown this offseason was that the Sox could go into October with a 1-2 punch similar to the one that brought Arizona a title in 2001. If Pedro’s dropped from the ranks of the elite, that 1-2 punch is no more.

That doesn’t matter this weekend, though. The center of the universe for me this weekend is Fenway Park, and if the Yankees’ bats wake up, it could be a truly awesome series.

Friday Night

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LM: Well, that sucked. The Yankees still aren’t hitting, but they’re playing atrocious defense; Wakefield pitched like it was Game 1 or 4 of the ALCS last season again, and Javier Vazquez just didn’t have it. I’m not worried about Vazquez either, since he was pitching on seven days of rest, so he couldn’t have been in his groove. But man, there sure are a lot of things I’m not worried about right now that I could be worried about. I’m worried about that.

Did you see that fat guy with the ugly shirt behind home plate, and his friend, the fat guy with the hooded pullover? Man, I hate people who spend the whole game waving at the camera. Still, I’d rather spend nine innings looking at him than have to see “Scooter” and his poorly animated frightening sneer spew his wholly uninformative babble one more time.

So, the first round goes to the Red Sox. There’s at least 19 rounds to this fight, though, and by October, nobody will remember who won this game. Hell, by Monday, nobody will remember who won this game.

Saturday Morning

BJ: I doubt anything could ruin the Red Sox winning their first game of the season against the Yankees for me, but the FOX broadcast and the fat guy in the ugly shirt came close. I know we don’t want to turn away readers, but if anybody reading this ever talks on a cell phone behind home plate and tries to wave at the camera so the person you’re talking to can see you, leave now. You’re not welcome here, or probably anywhere. You’re at the ballpark to watch a game, put the cell phone away and sit down.

While I’m on my high horse, I’m actually not going to say anything about FOX’s broadcast booth. I will say, however, that I don’t think they have a single graphic or feature that enhances the game-watching experience for me, and “Scooter” was just about the worst idea they’ve ever come up with. At least they didn’t show 5,000 split screen shots like they normally do.

Anyway, back to the game. It was great to see Wakefield out there doing his thing. Earlier in his career, I was always exceedingly nervous when Wakefield pitched, but in recent years his little floater has had somewhat of a calming effect on me. I generally just shrug it off when he gives up a hit or a walk, and I get a goofy grin when he makes a hitter look silly. He’s turning into one of my favorite pitchers.

It was also nice to see the bats keep going. The Red Sox offense had struggled to start the season without Garciaparra and Nixon, but they’ve now scored at least six runs in three straight games (although, as you said, they got some help last night). If the Red Sox offense can be good until the beginning of May, then it should be great again when Nomar and Trot return.

As for Pedro, I’m honestly not that worried. He doesn’t pitch well in cold weather, and it’s been very cold so far this season. A month from now, if Pedro’s fastball still looks completely different and he’s still walking everybody and he’s still giving up too many home runs, then I’ll start to worry. Until then, however, I’ll expect him to make 28-30 starts and lead the league in ERA.

And now that I think about it, maybe there’s another reason that I’m fairly calm about Pedro. For the past three seasons, we’ve been scared stiff about Pedro getting hurt or losing his stuff because without Pedro, the Red Sox chances of reaching the playoffs dropped to almost nil. This year, however, there’s some guy pitching for the Red Sox in a couple hours who could help carry them into the playoffs even if Pedro’s not at his best.

Sure, it would be a blow to the high playoff hopes people had of Pedro and Schilling if it turns out to just be “and Schilling,” but at least we know it’s possible to make the playoffs this year even if something happens (or has already happened) to Pedro.

And October’s too far off to really think too much about. Right now, I can’t wait to sit down and watch Schilling take on the Yankees and, even though he’s struggled, I can’t wait to go to the Bronx next Sunday and watch Pedro take on the Yankees.

Saturday Afternoon

BJ: Well, this has been a really relaxing weekend for me so far. Today’s game was actually almost excruciatingly boring (nothing kills the pace of a game like pitchers who are tip-toeing around the strike zone), but I enjoyed it because the Red Sox were winning pretty much the whole time.

In fact, there’s only one thing that concerns me at this particular moment, and it might surprise you. I’m worried about Keith Foulke. I’m not worried because he gave up his first run of the season, but rather because he was even pitching in the first place.

Foulke has entered each of the last two games with the Red Sox leading by four runs, which makes no sense to me. The Red Sox have played 10 games, and Foulke has pitched in seven of them. Foulke is on pace for 113 appearances and 146 innings pitched.

I know Theo Epstein said the Red Sox want to use Foulke as much as possible this season, but that’s a ridiculous pace. They’re really going to need to ease up on him if he’s going to have anything left in the tank come September and, hopefully, October.

By the way, what did you think of the Boston fans? Did you like the “You use steroids!” chant that replaced the typical “Let’s go Red Sox!” when Giambi and Sheffield were at-bat?

LM: Yeah, I’m sure that nobody on the Red Sox could possibly have used steroids. Hey, Johnny Damon seems to be having some kind of testosterone imbalance…

I don’t want to take anything away from Schilling yesterday, but the Yankees are just playing like crap so far. They’ve spent the entire season lowering expectations, and then failing to meet them. While Giambi’s getting on base and hitting with some power, Posada leads the team with a .257 batting average, and leads by a lot. Seriously, every player but Posada, Giambi, Kevin Brown and the guys in the bullpen are in a slump. Well, I guess you could say Enrique Wilson‘s not in a slump, either, he just sucks.

Slumps are usually not caused by anything tangible, they’re just flukes of sample size. But ballplayers are people, and if a slump goes on long enough, it can start to be self-perpetuating. It’s probable that everyone on the team will break out at the same time, and put up some monster numbers, but I was really hoping that would have been this weekend. Well, there’s still two games left.

The Yankees really need Jose Contreras tomorrow to be the guy who shut the Red Sox down for most of the ALCS last season, as well as pretty much everybody else in September, and not the guy who got knocked around last week by the White Sox, or last August by the Red Sox. If the Yankees aren’t going to start hitting, then they’ve got to keep the scores low, and hope to sneak out a win.

But we know this isn’t going to keep up. A lineup with Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield in the middle of it, with Posada, Jeter and Bernie Williams playing lesser roles shouldn’t be one of the worst hitting teams in baseball, and it won’t be.

Sunday Morning

BJ: I wasn’t suggesting that the Yankees are definitely on steroids and the Red Sox are definitely not. However, I was slightly amused by the chant. It’s at least more interesting than another round of “Yankees Suck!”

What really strikes me about the chant is that the Player’s Association absolutely needs to work out a plan for some real testing. Giambi and Sheffield (and Bonds) have had their names linked to a lab that is involved with steroids (and other similar substances) and they are now being treated by the public as guilty until proven innocent. Why?

Well, part of it is because some people are just like that. But there’s also the problem of not having a system that is capable of proving guilt. When you know there’s no potential for guilt to be found even if it’s there, how easy is it to just presume innocence until guilt is proven?

Anyway, the whole steroid thing doesn’t really interest me that much, so back to the rivalry. It seems early to say this, but today’s game is really quite important. If the Yankees can win today, they’ll have a great chance of earning a split with Brown facing Bronson Arroyo tomorrow.

However, if the Red Sox can rough up Contreras and/or Lowe can shut down the Yankees offense, then it will be on Brown to prevent a four-game sweep that would put the Yankees at 5-8 and 3.5 games out of first place already.

It’s a lot earlier, but this is somewhat similar to the Fourth of July weekend series from last year. The Red Sox went into that series and easily won the first two games and had their fans worked up about a potential four-game sweep.

I was especially excited because I was going to attend both of the next two games. Unfortunately, Andy Pettitte easily defeated the Red Sox in the third game of the series and then Pedro and Mussina pitched to a standstill in the fourth game before the Yankees beat the Boston bullpen.

If this series goes like that one and the Yankees win these two games, it’ll be a wash and nobody will care about how bad they looked in the first two games. If the Red Sox win both games, they’ll be playing with house money next weekend.

Sunday Night

LM: And so it goes. The Yanks won fairly handily today, and have a great shot to earn the split tomorrow.

I recall that last year it seemed like time and again the Red Sox were about to establish dominance over the Yankees with a couple of lopsided wins, and then the Yankees came out and reestablished themselves by the end of the series, and ultimately won the series 14-12. That seems to be what’s happening in this series so far.

The Yankees didn’t need this win, but they sure as hell needed this game. 10 hits, 4 doubles, 21 baserunners — their offense finally broke out, even if A-Rod is still slumping, and they were finally competitive this weekend. Really, if this series does end up a split, it would be appropriate, since neither team is really where they want to be — Boston missing Nomar and Nixon, the Yankees missing their hitting stroke.

And really, none of these games have been all that good. The excitement has come entirely from the history, and the fact that it’s their first matchup since Boone‘s homer. I’m almost hoping for a low-scoring game tomorrow to give us a bit of a thrill. But I’d rather see a Yankees’ blowout.

I think the only thing we’ve learned after this weekend is that both of these teams have great bullpens — you’d better get the lead off of the starters, because you’re probably not going to come back late. I expect most of the rest of the games between these teams to be a lot closer, and perhaps some of the best of the year. I’m already looking forward to Monday’s game, and next weekend’s after that.

BJ: The only thing this weekend confirmed for me is that it’s too early to be playing these games. Neither team is in the flow of the season quite yet and neither team is firing on all cylinders.

What makes the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry so incredible is that they’re both great teams. This weekend, however, they weren’t both great teams. They were two teams trying to work through their problems early in the season, and everybody in the media wanted to pass it off as a momentous series when it just wasn’t.

Maybe next weekend will be more intense, but it’s still going to be April and it’s still probably going to be way too early to get worked up about any one game. I guess I’ll know more about how intense these games are early in the season when I actually get to Yankee Stadium, but I’m not expecting it to feel any different than a game against any other team.

Oh well, I’ll be getting up early to go over to my friend’s house and watch the Patriots Day game. I’ll keep my hopes up that the Red Sox win a dramatic game to finish the series, but it doesn’t look real good. It’ll probably end up as just another game to finish just another split series between two teams.

It’s a real shame, too, because these games could have been incredibly exciting in about a month. It feels like baseball has thrown away seven opportunities to have intense, dramatic baseball games. At least this year, they have six games against each other in the last two weeks of the season, so maybe baseball is just sacrifing some drama early in the season to add some drama later on.

Either way, this weekend didn’t tell us much other than that it’s definitely still only April.

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