Red Sox and Yankees. It had to come to this, there was no way around it, no matter how bleak the chances once looked. Their 2003 story began with the Evil Empire comment, it endured 19 marathon games, a head-hunter charge by the Boss, blowouts, MannyGate and finished with a masterpiece by David Wells. The season series had about everything. And now, the rivals face each other in the ALCS. Here are five questions, the biggest being: is there any way this series can follow the unforgettable series between the Red Sox and A's?
Have the Red Sox gone from a cursed team to one of destiny?
Perhaps. Consider just a few pieces of the series against Oakland. Eric Byrnes doesn't touch home plate in Game 3; minutes later, Miguel Tejada points and stops instead of running home. In Game 4, Eric Chavez's drive bounces over the fence for a ground-rule double, costing Oakland a run, but David Ortiz's drive doesn't, scoring the game-winner. In Game 5, Oakland has the tying run at third with one out, and can't put the ball in play. Say it however you like: the A's blew it, the Red Sox were lucky or there's something very special about this Boston club. They're a bunch of Cowboy Up, head-shaved, dirt-bag guys who never give up. This is a different Red Sox team than any in recent memory. And most of them have no memory, they wouldn't know Bill Buckner from Quinn Buckner.
How good has the Yankee starting pitching been in this post season?
"Man, did they pitch,'' said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. A year after the Yankee rotation was torched for 20 runs in four games by the Angels, the same four guys allowed 24 hits in four games to the Twins. Mike Mussina pitched very well in Game 1, but was betrayed by poor defense. Andy Pettitte's cutter in Game 2 was unhittable. Roger Clemens, the oldest starting pitcher ever to win a postseason game, was too young for the Twins in Game 3. And Wells, the fourth-oldest starting pitcher to win a postseason game, was masterful in Game 4. But the Twins aren't the Red Sox at the plate, they're not even close. The Red Sox hit .316 at home. They set the AL slugging percentage record, breaking the mark of the '27 Yankees, and they did a lot of that damage against New York. They scored 10 runs in a game five times against the Yankees. The Red Sox scored 10 runs in a game six times against the Yankees from 1992-2002 combined.
What is the makeup of the Boston bullpen?
We have asked the same question every day, beginning with Opening Day when Chad Fox gave up a walkoff homer to Carl Crawford. The answer still isn't clear. It is true that the Boston bullpen was very good in the series against Oakland. Left-hander Alan Embree was great, so was Mike Timlin. Until his consecutive walks in the ninth inning of Game 5, so was closer Scott Williamson, who was clocked at 97 mph in the series, and showed that great slider. But in the end, it took a starting pitcher, Derek Lowe, to close out the A's as Byung-Hyun Kim sat in the bullpen. The Red Sox will open with Williamson as the closer, and will use Kim late only in an emergency. Is this the best the bullpen has thrown all season, or will the bullpen be the downfall of the Red Sox after all?
What about the Yankee bullpen?
Who knows? All that's clear is that Mariano Rivera is sailing that cutter through the zone again, and again, no one can hit it. It is clear, however, that he is the only reliever that manager Joe Torre trusts. Rivera's two saves in the Division Series were two-inning saves. He now has eight, six-out saves in his postseason career, by far the most by anyone since the save rule became official in 1969. He has eight, six-out saves in the regular season during his seven-year run as the closer, but in the playoffs, Torre isn't messing around. But asking Rivera for two innings a night in a seven-game series is asking a lot. Somebody has to help bring the game to Rivera, be it Jeff Nelson (mediocre since his return to New York) or Jose Contreras. Combined, they faced one batter in the series against the Twins.
How much will the extra rest help the Yankees?
A lot. Their series against the Twins wasn't particularly taxing; the Red Sox's unforgettable comeback against the A's had to be an energy drain in every way, not the least of which was the concussion suffered by Johnny Damon in the horrible collision with Damian Jackson. The Yankee rotation will be completely rested, and in order. The Red Sox rotation is a mess. The great Pedro Martinez won't be able to start until Game 3. Lowe, who saved Game 5 against Oakland, will be hard-pressed to be 100 percent for a possible start in Game 2. Tim Wakefield will start Game 1.
Yankees in seven.