Rivals in Exile: Way Too Early

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in western 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 area, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

Ben Jacobs: You know what the biggest problem with the Red Sox and Yankees playing this early is? It’s that I’m so excited that baseball is back after the long, cold winter, that there’s just not much excitement to be added yet by the fact that it’s Boston vs. New York.

Still, after a dreadfully boring first game, this season-opening series turned out to be pretty darn exciting. The fact that the Yankees won two of the three games almost seems to be secondary to the things that unfolded throughout the series.

The biggest event, obviously, was the consecutive blown saves by Mariano Rivera. I agree with what I know your position on this is: it’s no big deal. Rivera struggled with his control, gave up a home run to Jason Varitek on Tuesday, gave up a few singles on Wednesday and had some bad luck with a couple of infield grounders.

When the Yankees tied Wednesday’s game at 2-2, you said to me that if the Red Sox were going to get swept by the Yankees, the first series of the season would be the best time for it. Well, the same thing applies here. If Rivera was going to blow back-to-back saves against Boston, the beginning of the year is the best time for it (especially since the Yankees were able to escape with only one loss in the two games).

I don’t believe the Red Sox are in Rivera’s head or anything silly like that, and I’m not expecting him to keep blowing saves against them. He’s still a great closer, and I’ll consider the Red Sox fortunate every time they get to him.

The one thing I noticed about the Yankees that I will put some stock in is the bottom of their lineup. All winter, I heard people talking about how the Yankees offense had no holes in it from one through nine. All winter, I thought they might be average at best at four different positions.

Those four positions — Jason Giambi at designated hitter, Tino Martinez at first base, Tony Womack at second base, Bernie Williams in center field — have occupied the bottom four slots in the lineup (except for Ruben Sierra batting cleanup in the opener).

In the opening series, they combined to go 6-for-35 (.171) with just nine total bases (.257 SLG), although they did draw seven walks and get hit three times (.348 OBP). I know one series doesn’t mean anything, and I know you don’t think that quartet will be as bad as I think they will, so maybe the first three games don’t concern you.

For me, though, I’d rather see them start slowly and have some immediate positive reinforcement of my beliefs than see them get off to a hot start and have to hope they don’t keep proving me wrong.

For the Red Sox, there were some things to be concerned about as well. Edgar Renteria was on the way to a completely lost series before he picked up two hits at the end of the third game and David Wells and Matt Clement both had less-than-inspiring Red Sox debuts.

I’m not particularly concerned about any of those three things. Renteria’s eventually going to start hitting (maybe he already has), and he’ll finish with numbers that are better than last year but worse than two years ago.

Clement didn’t pitch terribly, and might not have given up any runs at all if Renteria turns that double play. It was apparent that he has good stuff, and he’ll have some very good starts for the Red Sox this year. He’ll also have at least a couple starts that are even worse than Tuesday’s, but I expect to be pleased with his contributions when the season’s over.

And Wells just had one of those days. He’s been a consistently average or better pitcher for the last eight years, and I need to see more than one start before I start worrying that his age is going to cause that streak to end this year.

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Anyway, my biggest complaint is that it’s too early for the Red Sox and Yankees to be playing six games against each other. And my biggest hope for when they meet again on Monday is that Terry Francona is back on the bench. When somebody associated with the team has a health scare, it certainly puts the importance of things back into perspective.

Larry Mahnken: Normally, I would think that April is too soon for the Yankees to play the Red Sox, but the first three games of the season allowed the Yankees to get the bad taste from last October out of my mouth when they beat the crap out of them on Sunday, and won the series.

They should have swept, but pennant races aren’t decided in April, and losing that game on Wednesday will have pretty much zero impact on the rest of the season. This pennant race won’t be decided by one game — and if it is, it’ll be because the team that won gave some games back at the end after clinching.

I think there’s a lot to be excited about for the Yankees, the Rivera situation is being way overblown and hardly overshadows the rest of what happened.

Hideki Matsui hit a couple of homers to enhance his reputation as a Boston Strangler, and Derek Jeter is off to precisely the opposite of the start he got off to last season. I think both of these players could be legitimate MVP candidates at season’s end.

Randy Johnson was a little off on Sunday — and was still completely in control. Carl Pavano was surprisingly dominant, and while Mike Mussina had nothing on his fastball, he still managed to minimize the damage and mitigate the worries about his lackluster stuff for now.

Tanyon Sturtze picked up right where he left off last fall, he’s now thrown 14.2 consecutive scoreless innings in the regular season, and given up only 1 run in his last nine innings against Boston. Maybe there was something to the cutter he added, he seems like a completely different pitcher.

I’m not worried that much about the slow starts by Bernie and Giambi, and having had no positive expectations for Womack, his poor start (.718 OPS) is no disappointment. And Tino cracked a game-tying homer on Wednesday, and was an average-hitting first baseman last season, so I’d hardly call him a hole in the lineup.

While I too think that Wells and Clement will pitch better this season than they did in their first starts, with the exception of Clement last year, neither has been much better than average over the last few seasons, and I don’t think their upside is nearly as high as the upside of the Yankees’ starters.

I don’t think the Yankees have anything to fear from either of these pitchers, and if Pavano ends up being as good as he looked Tuesday for much of the season, Boston will have a lot to fear from the Yankees’ rotation.

BJ: I suppose if what happened last year had been reversed, I would have been eager for the Red Sox and Yankees to face off this season, so that my favorite team could hopefully erase some of the unpleasantness from my mind. So I understand where you’re coming from on that.

For me, I just feel like I’ve been screwed out of a tremendously exciting and dramatic rivalry series because it was the first one of the year, and I was already pumped up just to have baseball back. And, like you said, none of those games is likely to determine who wins the AL East.

As for the pitchers, I expected Johnson and Mussina to be good anyway, so the fact that they pitched well neither surprises or worries me. Even if they’re both healthy and at their best in the playoffs, the Red Sox will still be able to beat the Yankees. It might not be easy, but it will be doable.

As for Pavano (and Jaret Wright) vs. Wells and Clement, I guess it depends on your preference. Pavano and Wright were both great last year, but never before that. Wells and Clement have both been very good (ERA+ above 115) once in the past three seasons, and above average to good in the other two seasons.

I don’t expect Pavano to be nearly that dominant the rest of the season. He didn’t strike people out in the NL, and he’s not going to move to the AL and suddenly have a significantly better strikeout rate.

Pavano might be good, but if he is it’ll be because he doesn’t walk a lot of hitters and he makes them put the ball in play (kind of like Wells). The problem with that is that he’ll need help from his defense, and the Yankees don’t have a good one.

Regarding Tino, here are his OPS+ marks from 2000-2004: 86, 115, 108, 106, 117. He’s also 37 years old now. So while he was decent for a first baseman last year, I think there’s plenty of reason to believe his OPS+ will drop back below 110 this year and he’ll be below average at his position this year.

Obviously, it’s too early to tell about any of this stuff. Early last season, it looked like Javier Vazquez would be an ace, Jeter might be washed up and Kevin Brown could be an asset. None of that ended up being true, and some of the things we’re thinking now (and over the next few weeks) will end up not being true as well.

LM: Hmm. A league-average hitter as a hole in the lineup. That’s a new one.

As this first full week has been wrapping up, it looks like the statheads were right about the Yankees and the mainstream was right about the Red Sox. Neither team is a juggernaut, Boston’s getting horrible pitching out of Wells and wildness from Clement, and the middle relief has been shaky. The Yankees haven’t gotten any dominant starting pitching yet, and their lineup has been pretty much Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui and nothing else so far.

Of course, it’s after the first full week of the season, so what’s that worth? The Blue Jays are in first, is that going to hold up?

There’s clearly better days to come soon for both these teams, but it’s clear that there’s going to be a lot that’s not going to turn out like we were hoping before the season, and you have to wonder how much each of these teams can afford to go wrong. Fortunately, there’s plenty of time for those things to turn right.

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