EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 27, 2009

Red Sox-Yanks series a sign of things to come?

On Pro Baseball

The Boston Red Sox left early this morning for a flight to Cleveland where they begin a nine-game road trip. While it may have taken a few weeks, they appear to be everything everybody thought they were.

But this weekend's sweep of the Yankees — 5-4, 16-11 and 4-1 — had a little extra gusto to it. We learned a lot about the Red Sox and Yankees.

Here are 10 things:

1. Sox got lucky.

Let me explain. The Red Sox missed CC Sabathia, the Yankees' best pitcher, and New York missed Tim Wakefield, whom they have pretty much dominated in his career (Wakefield is 10-17 with a 5.04 ERA). And Alex Rodriguez, their stat machine, was not around either. I can only imagine how many RBI A-Rod would have had on Saturday night (a 16-11 Sox win). I still believe the Yankees will be there until the end, which means they will be a much better team in July, August and September.

2. Yanks won't jell 'til June.

Before we bury the Yankees, really their bullpen, we must understand a fact of life — high priced free agents need time to feel comfortable and become a Yankee. Mark Teixeira (averaging only .218 thus far) is a superstar. The Red Sox offered him $180 million, nearly $100 million more than they offered to any free agent/trade acquisition in team history (Pedro Martinez got $82.6 million over seven years). Teixeira will hit 35 homers and 125 RBI with the Yankees. Count on it. And Sabathia will probably be twice as good in the second half as he is in the first.

3. Stealing home is special.

It was only one run, but Jacoby Ellsbury's steal of home in the fifth inning, giving the Sox a 3-1 lead, basically took the steam out of Yankees. The fact that Ellsbury was called out for a curtain call by the sold-out Fenway crowd about a minute after the "theft" tells you how important it was. I was at Fenway when Billy Hatcher stole home on April 22, 1994. To this day, Hatcher, now a coach with the Cincinnati Reds, says Red Sox fans still bring up that steal. You can bet that opposing pitchers will always pitch from the stretch when Ellsbury is on third base from now on.

4. No deficit is insurmountable.

Overcoming a 7-0 lead against the Orioles is one thing. Overcoming a 6-0 Yankees lead with A.J. Burnett looking flawless through three innings is another. These kinds of traits are contagious. A three- or four-run deficit in the fifth, sixth or seventh innings, all of sudden, don't seem so insurmountable. The Red Sox have had this "resiliency" thing going for more than a half-dozen years, but those kinds of wins seem to carry with them an extra punch. "I can't say if it will help us down the road," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, "but it can't hurt."

5. Yanks bullpen officially a mess.

This might be the most comforting news for Yankee-haters, particularly those that live four hours to the north of Yankee Stadium. No lead is safe. Worse, stopping the "bleeding" appears to be out of the question. This can kill a team, especially a team that can score runs like the Yankees. Who do the Yankees go to before Rivera pitches?

6. Sox bullpen is as good as advertised.

Comparatively speaking, the Red Sox bullpen couldn't be better. Despite a few iffy appearances from Hideki Okajima, Red Sox relievers have bordered on perfection. The fact that closer Jonathan Papelbon can take a day off in a Yankees series speaks volumes about the Red Sox depth from the sixth or seventh inning on.

7. Saturday win trumped Friday win.

Friday night was great. Jason Bay's two-out, two-run homer off Mariano Rivera to tie the game at 4-4, followed by Kevin Youkilis' walk-off homer in the 11th inning, was special. Or so we thought. Saturday night's four-hour, 21-minute marathon did more damage. It broke the Yankees' spirit. They are supposed to beat the Red Sox with a 6-0 lead and Burnett on the mound. But it wasn't close. That 16-11 win might have a lasting effect, at least in the short term, on both of these teams.

8. Sox at best in series finale.

What about last night? Outside of Ellsbury's steal of home, it was pretty much business as usual. The Red Sox' bats finally got to Andy Pettitte. Red Sox fill-in starter Justin Masterson was stellar going just over five innings. He allowed one stingy run and six hits. And the Red Sox bullpen allowed one hit over 3 2/3 innings. It was nothing dramatic, just a nice, text book win.

9. Joba belongs in bullpen.

I like this Joba Chamberlain kid. He is part of the injection of new blood in this Red Sox-Yankees feud — see also Teixeira, Burnett and Sabathia. He appears to have a lot of Pedro Martinez in him, which means he is crazy when it comes to the flowing of competitive juices. But he just isn't as intimidating as a starter. Maybe that will change when he settles in and turns into an 18-game winner, but his fastball is three or four miles per hour faster as a reliever — less innings, more velocity. With the Yankees' problems in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, you wonder if Chamberlain might be the quick-fix. I do like watching him pitch. And I believe his head-hunting sessions with Youkilis aren't over.

10. Varitek isn't so automatic.

I realize his batting average isn't much different from a year ago — .216 (11 for 51) this season versus .220 in 2008 — but his power surge is noticeable. The grand slam he hit off Burnett, basically changing everything on Saturday, was not luck. He was looking for a fastball and hit it. How many times did he look overmatched in 2008? If he can knock the ball out of the park every so often — he now has four HRs — the strength of the back of the Red Sox lineup grows exponentially. He was only 2 for 12 this weekend, but it seemed like so much more.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.