By Matt Straub
It’s not always easy to sell these early season series as important. Of course you want to avoid struggling in the early months, but only a disastrous stretch can really ruin a team’s season before the All-Star break. This series between the game’s biggest rivals, the Red Sox and Yankees, has a bit more importance than a typical weekend set in July, however.
For the Red Sox, playing their best baseball of the year, the next three games are a chance to get back in the AL East race by winning at least two of three from the Yankees and getting within striking distance at the break.
The Yankees could use this week to get rid of one of the many teams pursuing them in the division, making what will be a wild second half a little easier. Even if it’s just one extra game gained, the Yankees can kill Boston’s momentum and change its entire outlook for the second half, which we’ll get into later.
There is also a chance for the Yankees to gain momentum, particularly if they can get a big effort from a starting pitcher looking to reclaim a permanent spot near the top of the rotation.
So let’s look at what could be an important three days for the two big names in baseball. At the very least, it won’t be your typical July snoozefest.
New York Yankees (46-39, 1st Place AL East)
at Boston Red Sox (41-45, Last Place AL East)
Friday, 7:10 p.m.
Michael Pineda (8-5, 3.79) vs. Clay Buchholz (7-6, 3.27)
Saturday, 7:15 p.m.
Ivan Nova (1-2, 2.65) vs. Eduardo Rodriguez (4-2, 3.69)
Sunday, 1:35 p.m.
Nathan Eovaldi (8-2, 4.45) vs. Wade Miley (8-7, 4.50)
The Red Sox actually have some these days believe it or not. They’ve won eight of 10 and 11 of 15 to pull within six games in the loss column of the Yankees for the division lead. A good couple of weeks constitutes a tear in Boston this year and actually puts the Sox in a tough position. In the next three weeks they have to decide what to do at the trade deadline. If they stay on the fringe of the race, it will be tough to decide whether to try and acquire more young pieces or to go for it and try to sneak into the playoffs. If this good play continues this weekend and after the break (a tough task since Boston won’t be playing the Marlins anymore), Boston might go all in. If the Yankees clean up in Fenway this weekend, it might start Boston’s fire sale.
For the Yankees, the big picture has been fine, even if the overall numbers don’t look too impressive. New York is winning most of the games it needs to (save for a miserable series with the Phillies), doing enough to stay in front of a bunched up AL East which has proven better than everyone thought before the year. Now comes the chance to bury one of those rivals, and the one the Yanks would like to bury most.
Three Yankees To Watch
1. Brett Gardner is an All-Star now after Alex Gordon got hurt, and he’s always a dangerous player near the top of the order. He had three hits Thursday and comes into this series fairly hot.
2. Jacoby Ellsbury needs no introduction to Red Sox fans, but his return to the Yankees lineup makes it a fast, effective one at the top and gives New York’s big bats another table setter. How Boston does against the two speedsters will be a huge factor in this series.
3. Nova is back with the Yankees finally, and has been at least decent in every one of his starts so far. His start Saturday night will get the most scrutiny, and if he can show he can pitch well in a pressure situation, it will be a huge lift for the Yankees’ confidence as their rotation becomes a bit more stable.
Three Red Sox To Watch
1. David Ortiz will be a fascinating player to keep an eye on this weekend. He has moved to first base a couple of times on this homestand, but has openly resisted going there permanently. Getting Mike Napoli out of the lineup and moving Hanley Ramirez out of the outfield, which he can’t play, to DH, are both huge benefits of shifting Ortiz, but keeping him happy is also important to the Red Sox since he controls the mood of the clubhouse. The Red Sox will likely give in to their whiny star, but if not they might have found their best lineup.
2. Ryan Hanigan might be the most important player in this rivalry you’ve never heard of. His return to the catcher’s role has Boston’s pitchers feeling more confident with a veteran to throw to and call the game for them. He even had Rick Porcello throwing a decent game in his last start. Boston’s pitchers will need to be confident against the Yankees.
3. Ramirez has struggled mightily lately, and will have to be in better form to go up against the best team in the division. Maybe a shift to DH will let him concentrate on his offense and get him going again. The Red Sox need him.
The All-Star break begins Monday and goes through Thursday, with both teams having players in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.