Thursday, July 3, 2008

The smell of Sox is in the air

"We've got to start hitting. It's getting ridiculous. They've got to start waking up. They've shown in flashes what they can still do." -- Hank Steinbrenner
Hank Steinbrenner is an idiot. This much we know. But sometimes even an idiot's right, and in this case George's son made a good point.

When Chien-Ming Wang went down, we all knew that the pitching staff was going to be seriously tested from top to bottom. But the X-factor of the Yankees team, the weapon that would keep them contenders until Cash got pitching help or Wang returned, was the lineup. Simply put, it's loaded. Seven of the eight position players are former All-Stars, with another (Matsui) on the disabled list. And while this certainly is a veteran group (Posada, Giambi, Jeter, A-Rod, Abreu, Matsui and Damon are all in their 30s), they are all at an age where they still have good years in front of them, not just behind.

So Hank's stern remarks after Tuesday's loss certainly weren't without reason. This isn't just an offense that needs to perform on an average level for the Yankees to win 90-plus games, this is a group that has to be better than everyone else. That may seem to be asking a lot, but when you look at the payroll and past performances, all these guys have to do is put up representative numbers. Do that, and as a unit this offense can overmatch the large majority of pitching staffs in this league. This isn't rocket science.

And since Hank is an idiot, he probably is sitting in his office with an assistant patting his back this afternoon under the mistaken impression that his criticism sparked the Yankees to 18 runs against the Rangers on Wednesday. Jason Giambi led the way with a grand slam and six RBIs, while A-Rod moved past Jimmie Foxx with his 535th homer (one behind The Mick). Yesterday was an extreme in the case study that the hitting must carry the pitching, but this is more or less how the Yankee must win until help arrives. We'll let the Jr. Boss think he caused this explosion, and meanwhile we can turn our attention to the second-place Boston Red Sox, who are coming into Yankee Stadium tonight to begin a fairly important four-game series.

Rays - 52-31, .619
Red Sox - 50-37, .555
Yankees - 45-40, .529
Orioles - 43-40, .518
Blue Jays - 41-45, .477

Thursday: Jon Lester, LHP (6-3, 3.48) vs. Andy Pettitte, LHP (9-5, 3.98)
Friday: Josh Beckett, RHP (7-5, 3.65) vs. Darrell Rasner, RHP (4-6, 4.42)
Saturday: Justin Masterson, RHP (4-2, 3.75) vs. Mike Mussina, RHP (10-6, 3.87)
Sunday: Tim Wakefield, RHP (5-6, 3.72) vs. Joba Chamberlain, RHP (2-2, 2.22)

With the notable exception of Friday, the Yankees seem to have the pitching edge. Boston gets to miss the comedic stylings of Sir Drink-A-Lot Sidney Ponson, while New York misses one of Boston's best in Dice-K. Good little break there. It's weird to have the Sox come into the Bronx for a key series without Curt Schilling or David Ortiz involved, but that's what we have here with The Mouth out for the year after shoulder surgery and Ortiz is sidelined with a wrist injury. On both counts this is another advantage for New York.

If you're a Yankees fan and you're worried about your team's play of late, well guess what, you and a Red Sox fan finally have something in common. Simply put, the Sox are not playing very well right now, stumbling into the Bronx on a five-game losing streak and fresh off a jarring three-game sweep by the Rays.

Speaking of which, there's another new dynamic at play in the rivalry. For the better part of the decade, these series have been a battle for AL East supremacy. But the red-hot Rays have added a Twilight Zone -esque wrinkle in 2008. Believe or not, Tampa Bay has a 3 1/2 game lead in the division, while the Yanks and Sox are duking it out in the Wild Card chase (New York is three out in the loss column entering Thursday).

All of which makes this a deadly serious weekend at Yankee Stadium. Take care of business at home, and the Bombers will be marching toward the All-Star break within a whisper of the Wild Card lead. Continue to play without urgency, and you're just another team hovering around .500 that doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.

I'd like to think this Yankees team will embrace the stage this weekend, and fresh off Wednesday's explosion, will take it to a scuffling Red Sox team. I'll be at the game tonight, but not before a three-hour stint at Stan's Sports Bar on River, antagonizing Red Sox fans in pink hats while hoping that this weekend just might be the moment where the Yankees took their play in 2008 to the next level.

If it does come true, we'll owe it all to Hank.

Prediction: Yanks take 3 of 4

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