Commentary

Yankees strike first after season reset

Hey, BoSox are vulnerable after all; Bombers break first-place tie in Game 111 of '11

Updated: August 6, 2011, 4:15 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- It was like Opening Day all over again Friday night at Fenway Park, and after Game 1 of a 52-game season, the New York Yankees hold a one-game lead over the Boston Red Sox in the race for the AL East.

Think about that for a moment.

After four full months of baseball, after all the glowing reviews for the Red Sox's offseason and all the dire predictions about the Yankees, their geriatric starting rotation and the Jurassic left side of their infield, after all the silliness of awarding Boston the World Series before an exhibition game had been played and all the foolishness of characterizing the $200 million Yankees as some sort of pathetic underdog, it has come down to this.

When the baseball world wakes up on Aug. 6, 2011, the Yankees will be in first place, a game ahead of The Greatest Team Ever Assembled with John Henry's Money.

It's improbable, yes, considering that the Yankees are old, the Red Sox are loaded, and through the first four months of the season the Yankees had seemed to have more players on the disabled list, or in a hospital bed or on an operating table than they did in their clubhouse.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Granderson
AP Photo/Charles KrupaCurtis Granderson finally figured out Jon Lester, driving in the Yankees' first run.

And now, on Aug. 6 -- I'm repeating the date here because it has some significance that I will remind you of later -- after doggedly stalking the Red Sox for two months, the Yankees are atop the AL East.

They did it with an improbable 3-2 win over an dispiritingly tough Boston lefty, Jon Lester, with an unlikely combination of relievers on a night in which Bartolo Colon simply did not have it.

And they did it after having lost seven in a row to the Red Sox, in sometimes lopsided fashion, having managed to win just one of their first nine meetings, and that one all the way back on April 9, in the eighth game of the season.

On Saturday, it will be two years to the day since the Yankees managed to beat the Red Sox for the first time in the 2009 season, after eight straight losses.

That season ended with a parade down lower Broadway, not through Copley Place.

You want another omen? Then go back to 2003, when the Yankees beat the Red Sox in Game 7, courtesy of the infamous -- around here -- Aaron Boone to reach the World Series.

Friday night, it was another Boone -- Logan, that is -- who stuck it into the heart of Red Sox Nation, striking out Adrian Gonzalez, only the best hitter in baseball this year, on three pitches with the bases loaded at the key moment of the game.

Yes, it's only one game, only one win, in what is still a large chunk of baseball to be played.

But it was more than just a win that the Yankees earned over the Red Sox, it was a message sent and presumably received.

As Nick Swisher said, "To come in and get the first one here is huge for us. It shows us they are human and they can be beat."

For awhile, even a team as proud and resilient as the Yanks must have begun to doubt it.

And when the Red Sox jumped out to a 2-0 lead after four innings, on a Jacoby Ellsbury double that just missed being a home run and a David Ortiz home run that just missed entering low-Earth orbit, it looked as if Friday night would be more of the same.

After all, Lester's career record against the Yankees was 8-1, his ERA 3.56, and he had never lost to the Yankees at Fenway Park.

And in that fifth inning, Bartolo Colon's right arm, the most reliable on the team not belonging to Mariano Rivera, was showing signs of wear.

A single by Josh Reddick, a walk to Ellsbury and infield single by Dustin Pedroia may not sound like much, but all night long, Colon had not been the dominant, even mystical pitcher he had been for most of the season. Although the radar gun said his velocity was good, 97 mph on some pitches, Colon hadn't gotten a single swing-and-miss until he caught the struggling Carl Crawford on a check-swing to end the fourth inning.

And when Pedroia's bouncer to second loaded the bases with two out for Gonzalez, who came into the game batting .356, Joe Girardi must have swallowed hard before going to Logan. Colon seemed annoyed by the change and was not seen in the clubhouse after the game.

But no one can quibble with Girardi's decision now, not after Logan, who has struggled against lefties all season, struck Gonzalez out on a slider in the dirt to quell the Red Sox's last real threat of the game.

The next inning, the Yankees administered the KO punch to Lester, who they had been systematically softening up with long at-bats all game long. It started with a walk to Eduardo Nuñez, who worked out an eight-pitch walk. Derek Jeter, who has looked like a different hitter the past few weeks, followed with a single to center.

Then Curtis Granderson, who seemed this year to have figured out the entire league with the exception of Lester -- he was batting .154 against him with two hits in 13 at-bats -- singled to left to get the Yankees on the scoreboard.

Then it was Robinson Cano's turn to wear out Lester, working him for nine pitches before grounding into a double play that forced in the tying run. Three pitches later, Swisher lashed one on a hop into the seats in left and the Yankees had all the runs they would need.

From there, the game went into the hands of the bullpen, which once against performed flawlessly, Logan, Cory Wade, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera combining for 4 1/3 innings of two-hit shutout ball.

After Rivera froze the last two Red Sox batters, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Reddick, on cutters, the Yankees had their eighth straight win.

More importantly, they had their first win over the Red Sox in four months, and a sole claim to first place in the East for the first time since July 6.

The Yankees, predictably enough, tried to play down the significance of beating the Red Sox with more than 50 games left to play, to minimize the importance of sending a message, and to put forth the fiction that all wins are created equal.

"We don't care what we've done before this," Jeter said. "It has no bearing. We can't worry about how we played against them earlier this season. Yeah, it's better to be in first than to be in second third or fourth, but it's too early to be looking at the scoreboard."

"That's a big win for us," Girardi said. "To be able to come from behind when Lester was dealing and be able to scratch three runs across, that's a big win for us. But they're all big wins and it doesn't matter who they come against."

Leave it to Mariano, of course, to put this one precisely where it belongs.

"We're not thinking about yesterday or about tomorrow until it comes," he said. "We just start counting now."

On the second Opening Day of their baseball season, the Yankees have a one-game lead over the Red Sox. As the man says, we just start counting now.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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