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Thursday, April 8, 2010
First chapter a compelling read

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

BOSTON -- The Red Sox left town following Wednesday's extra-inning loss and headed for Kansas City, the Yankees down to Tampa, Chapter One of Six finally in the books.

Over the first three games of the season, there were moments tantalizing (Dustin Pedroia's late-game home run off Chan Ho Park in the opener, Curtis Granderson's 10th-inning heat-seeker off Jonathan Papelbon in the finale) and tense (the claustrophobic walls of doubt closing in on David Ortiz after only 48 hours of regular-season play), but so much of "Sox-Yanks I" was mere sensation.

While these two clubs probably shouldn't be playing each other so early in the year, watching the Superpowers feel their way around the first part of the season was not inherently useless. Baseball season is alive and the Big Boys started out of the gate by immediately marking territory -- seven batters were hit by pitches in three games -- and the two will meet again in a little under a month, May 7, again at Fenway Park for three more games.

So, what did we learn?

Curtis Granderson
Welcome to the rivalry: Curtis Granderson's 10th-inning homer off Jonathan Papelbon gave the Yankees a win in the deciding game of the series.

1. Nothing that we didn't know. Both teams scored 13 runs over the first two games, proving the ability to slug if necessary before settling into a familiar, taut pitching duel Wednesday. The Yankees, already, possess the cool and easy look of a champion that knows its title was no fluke. Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui are gone and the Yankees have the weird distinction of having their outfield hit 7-8-9 in the batting order, but danger was all over the lineup.

The two-hitter, Nick Johnson, went hitless in the series (0-for-9) yet essentially won two games by drawing walks that led to providing winning and insurance margins. Johnson doesn't have a hit this season but has a .400 on-base percentage. Had he been in attendance, Billy Beane would have shed a tear.

Robinson Cano, essentially Matsui's replacement in the fifth spot of the order, left Boston hitting .417 and had even the Red Sox surprised at how much he has matured. "He probably won't, but he could hit 40 [home runs] this year," Sox manager Terry Francona said.

Granderson -- replacing Damon and batting seventh, though checkered (he hit .183 versus left-handers last season) -- hit two home runs in the series, both off right-handers, but big-time ones, Josh Beckett and Papelbon, welcoming himself to the showcase.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox did not exactly tear the cover off the ball but were every bit as dangerous in their home park. Two newcomers, Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre, nearly won the finale in the ninth with big shots off the redeemed Park, and fourth-hitter Kevin Youkilis went 4-for-9 in the series.

The games were long and anxious. The Yankees could have swept, but with a sustained rally in the finale the Red Sox could have won the series.

2. What happens between these two teams is indicative of nothing. Red Sox-Yankees is the equivalent of a microclimate, unaffected by the surrounding world. In the offseason, the Red Sox signed John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million contract and following the opener, Beckett to a four-year, $68 million contract. When Daisuke Matsuzaka returns from injury in May, the Red Sox's rotation -- Beckett, Jon Lester, Lackey, Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz/Tim Wakefield -- will be as formidable as any team in the league, rivaled only by the Yankees.

The Yankees, meanwhile, signed former Yankee Javier Vazquez to give them a pitching foursome of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Vazquez, with Phil Hughes in the No. 5 slot. In this series the six starting pitchers produced six no decisions, each game a classic Red Sox-Yankees bullpen battle. In the finale, Lackey-Pettitte was merely a continuation of last year's ALCS between the Yankees and Angels -- Lackey was even replaced by old Anaheim teammate Scott Schoeneweis -- but on East Coast time.

Throughout his debut, Lackey pitched with the solemn toughness of his trademark, throwing first-pitch strikes yet finding ways to land in three-ball counts, but coming away at the end of most at-bats victorious. He gave up three hits over six innings and yet couldn't shake Pettitte, who walked the tightrope all night.

"That's his history," Francona said of Pettitte. "He gives up hits but not a lot of runs."

Just like the glory days of 2003-05, the two circle each other, either purposely or inadvertently. The Red Sox have their hard-throwing bridge guy in Daniel Bard, the Yankees theirs in Joba Chamberlain. The theater was certainly fun, but it was obvious since Sunday that the American League -- at least until the ALCS should these two teams rematch -- will not be settled by head-to-head matchups.

David Ortiz
David Ortiz's 1-for-11 start to the season was magnified by the fact he did it against the Yankees.

3. The pressure is already on. Would the David Ortiz Story ratchet itself to Code Red had the Red Sox opened up with, say, the Royals? Absolutely not. Ortiz drove in Boston's only run of the game Wednesday with his first hit of the season, then struck out against Park on three pitches to end a nervous eighth. Ortiz hit .091 for the series, has already had one outburst and at 1-for-11 has not yet enjoyed the kind of sustained night he will need to keep doubt at bay. The Yankees can do that. As Francona said before the game, "The season is seven hours old, but against the Yankees, that means it's nine hours."

Nevertheless, these games provided fewer clues and more confirmation that these two teams are quite ready for the summer, already, quite ready for each other. The real test won't come in their second meeting a few weeks, or the third, the first at Yankee Stadium, but instead during that nearly two-month stretch of summer when they don't play each other and the real questions -- whether the Red Sox can win on the road this year, if Vazquez is any more American League ready than he was his first go-rounds in New York and Chicago, if Matsuzaka will be an impact player and if Mariano Rivera will ever slip, even a notch -- will actually be answered.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42