As the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees get set to close the first half of the season with a four-game series at Fenway Park, starting Friday, we ask ESPNNewYork.com Yankees beat writer Wallace Matthews and ESPNBoston.com Red Sox beat writer Joe McDonald to weigh in on five questions that could define not only the series, but the AL East race in the second half.
1. Do you expect the Red Sox and Yankees to be fighting neck and neck for the AL East title in September?
Matthews: Anything is possible, but it's more likely the Red Sox will end up battling with the Rays and Orioles for the wild-card spots. My suspicion is the Sox may have lost the divisional race out of the gate because, even though they have played the Yankees pretty much even since April 21, when the Yankees rallied from seven runs down to win, 15-9, they're still 7 1/2 games back. Unless Boston sweeps the four games, this weekend's series won't really move the needle all that much. To overcome their 4-10 start, the Red Sox aren't just going to have to keep pace with the Yankees, they're going to have to crush them the rest of the way.
McDonald: While it might seem like the Yankees are poised to run away with the AL East, with the Red Sox left to battle it out for one of the two wild cards, that's not how I see it. I predict the Red Sox will make a major surge in the second half of the season (they were 20-6 last July, remember), and the storied rivalry with the Yankees will once again have meaning come September. They've had their struggles, but the Red Sox have kept their heads above water despite injuries to key players. Once guys like Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz return (assuming they all stay healthy), the Red Sox will gain ground and make things interesting.
2. Which team has the bigger injury concerns right now?
Matthews: I would think the Yankees because they've lost two-fifths of their starting rotation and not just any two-fifths, but their ace (CC Sabathia) and the pitcher (Andy Pettitte) who was the best in their rotation when he went down.
McDonald: The Yankees have the bigger concerns going forward, especially considering the injury-plagued Red Sox are finally on the mend. Soon, the roster could be almost exactly what manager Bobby Valentine and GM Ben Cherington were hoping it would be at the beginning of the season (though that will be delayed to later this month with Dustin Pedroia set to go on the DL). Crawford and Ellsbury will both likely make their returns just after the All-Star break, and even closer Andrew Bailey could be a viable asset sooner rather than later.
3. Why is this Red Sox-Yankees series important?
Matthews: It's less important for the Yankees than the Red Sox because even if the worst-case scenario unfolds and they get swept, they'll still have a 3 1/2 game lead in the division and three-game advantage in the loss column. Still, a series win this weekend for the Yankees would send an important message to Boston, and a sweep, which would drop the Red Sox to 11 1/2 games back, would be a knife in the heart just before the All-Star break.
McDonald: The Yankees embarrassed the Red Sox earlier this season, winning a pair of games (the third game was postponed to this weekend) during the 100th-anniversary weekend at Fenway Park. In Game 2 of that series, New York erased a 9-0 deficit and beat Boston 15-9 in what Valentine called rock bottom for the Red Sox this season. It's unusual to hear Red Sox players talk about the Yankees, but since that loss, many players in the Boston clubhouse have mentioned they've been waiting for this upcoming series because they want payback. Plus, the Red Sox are coming off a three-game losing skid to the Oakland Athletics, so what better way to rebound than with a series win over the Yankees?
4. Which injured outfielder will make the biggest contribution in the second half: Brett Gardner, Ellsbury or Crawford?
Matthews: I don't think it's possible to say "will,'' because we don't know if all, or if any, of them will come back at full strength and then proceed to play at his full ability after missing so much of the season. But of the three, the one who has the potential to have the most impact on his team is Ellsbury because he's the best of the three, although I don't discount the improvement in the Yankees' ability to score runs without relying on the long ball that a healthy Gardner would bring them.
McDonald: I predict Crawford will make a major contribution for the Red Sox in the second half of the season. He embarrassed himself last year, his first in Boston, with a career-worst season. He made it a point during the offseason to prepare himself for a comeback-player-of-the-year-type of season in 2012, but suffered a couple of setbacks: wrist surgery in January and then an elbow injury during spring training. He's been anxious to get back and prove he's worth the money the Red Sox shelled out to get him.
5. What's your prediction for this weekend's series?
Matthews: I doubt we'll see a significant change in the status of either team at the end of this weekend because of the unlikelihood of either team being able to sweep. But with Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova -- both of whom have a tendency to give up HRs -- going for the Yankees, it would not surprise me a bit if the Red Sox win three out of four.
McDonald: In 2004, these teams played in the late July, and it was that series that changed the outlook for the Red Sox that season. Boston was 9 1/2 games out of first place but took two of three against New York that weekend at Fenway Park, including a dramatic walk-off win in a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl when Jason Varitek shoved his mitt in the face of Alex Rodriguez. The Red Sox won the wild card that season and rallied past the Yankees in the ALCS before winning their first World Series in 86 years. With that in mind, I think this could be another tone-setting series for the Red Sox. They'll take three of four.