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Kevin Youkilis, #20 of the Boston Red Sox, is out at second base as Derek Jeter, #2 of the New York Yankees, turns the double play on a ball hit by David Ortiz in the third inning at Yankee Stadium.
One game down, one butt-kicking administered, one victory in the bag, and it’s already mission accomplished for the New York Yankees.
After stomping all over the Red Sox Thursday night, it doesn’t matter what happens in the next three games of this highly ballyhooed showdown in the Bronx. The Red Sox could win all of them — as unlikely as that may be — and the Yankees still wake up Monday morning in first place in the AL East. And being in first place is always the prime objective.
But it goes way beyond that for the Yankees, who had a lot to prove going into this series. For starters, they showed Boston that they are not the team that lost the first eight games the two greatest rivals in baseball had played earlier this season. Then they let the Red Sox know that the great John Smoltz experiment is one of the worst moves their resident genius Theo Epstein ever attempted. And if that’s not enough, the Yankees demonstrated that one of their top starters, Joba Chamberlain, can pitch as if the strike zone is the size of a postage stamp and still prevail against a Boston lineup that has suddenly gone Charmin soft.
The scoreboard shows a blowout 13-6 victory by the Yankees, punctuated by 18 hits and four home runs. But you have to go to the box score to understand that the Pinstripes tried early on to give this game away, but found no takers in the visitor’s dugout.
Chamberlain walked seven hitters in five innings, a career high for him. He spotted the Sox a 3-1 lead after 3 1/2 innings. On the night, Yankee pitching would give up 12 walks — an unconscionable number.
But it wasn’t the three runs the Red Sox scored in the first four innings that deserve mention. Rather it was all the runs they didn’t score. Boston would end the game 3-for-21 with runners in scoring position, with two of those hits coming in the ninth inning when the outcome was no longer in doubt. Red Sox Nation knew coming in that their heroes were sputtering offensively, but this performance against struggling Yankee pitchers was off-the-charts bad. Time and again when one big hit could have broken the game open, the Red Sox hitters failed.
Earlier in the year, Boston may have gotten away with that against a Yankee lineup that began the year without Alex Rodriguez and had to find its hitting stroke. But no more. These Yankees are one of the hottest teams in baseball, a tuned and polished scoring machine loaded with power from top to bottom. Put them in their new bandbox ballpark, and if your pitchers make mistakes, they’re leaving the yard in a hurry.
And this brings us to the sad spectacle of the 42-year-old Smoltz bravely trying to be the great clutch pitcher he was for so many years in Atlanta. The Red Sox picked him up coming off shoulder surgery, and Red Sox manager Terry Francona insists the future Hall of Famer still has good stuff and can be effective.
Smoltz does have decent velocity. He still brings it in the low 90s. But his stuff is gone, especially against left-handed hitters, who are treating him like a human batting tee. Going into Thursday’s game, Smoltz had given up 23 runs in his previous 27 innings. Against the Yanks, he gave up just one run over his first three innings, then seven more in his fourth. He didn’t make it to a fifth inning of work.
Smoltz’s ERA is now 8.32. You don’t have to be a student of the game to know this is not good. And when the man who is pitching that pathetically is 42 years old, you don’t have to be one of the inventors of moneyball to know it’s time to pull the plug on this Frankenstein experiment; the monster may be breathing, but he’s not alive — not in any sense that’s relevant to baseball.
With Tim Wakefield injured, the Red Sox don’t have a lot of options pitching-wise. And even with the studs still on their staff, they’ve got to find a way to breathe life into their offense. Otherwise, the worst thing that could happen to Boston in this series and the coming weeks will happen. When this series began, the Yankees’ big goal was to pad their lead in the AL East. With the Red Sox going into a brutal stretch of the schedule against contending teams and the Yankees off on a journey through the league’s bottom-feeders, the potential to put this race away right now is very real.
The Yankees made a down payment on that big-picture goal. And they did it without pitching particularly well. They didn’t have to. The Red Sox who were so nasty and mean and unrelenting early in the year were nowhere to be found Thursday night. They can still come back, but early in the year, they were playing without pressure. Now, the weight of the entire season is riding on their shoulders.
They’d better come up with something, and fast. The Yankees have already accomplished the first goal of ensuring they won’t leave this four-game showdown in second place. And now, with a full head of confidence and an offense that looks unstoppable, they’re eager to make up for the insults inflicted on them earlier in the year.
They’ve already made a pretty good start.