The best rivalry in baseball is back in full bloom. The Yankees and Red Sox played an epic of a game Thursday night -- 10 innings, 17 runs, 26 hits, 37 players, 272 minutes and 414 pitches before Boston won 9-8 -- that was just the first of seven games within 11 days between these ancient rivals that will have a large say in how the American League postseason entrants are decided.
But don't think the rivalry had withered to something meaningless, even during the abyss of Boston's last-place season under Bobby Valentine last year. Part of what makes the rivalry so great is that it is always relevant. The last time the Yankees and Red Sox played each other when both teams were out of contention was Oct. 4, 1992, when Buck Showalter and Butch Hobson were the respective managers. Since then, including the postseason, we have been treated to 351 consecutive Yankees-Red Sox games in which one or both teams were in contention. New York leads in the Hatfield vs. McCoys of baseball, 188-132, in this run of intensity that has lasted a generation.
Boston, losers of 93 games last year, suddenly has the better team and the better farm system with more ready-made major leaguers. The Yankees face a huge offseason in which they want to cut payroll and re-sign Robinson Cano, and they don't have the young players to prop up an aging roster. "How long will it be now that the Red Sox are better than the Yankees?" asked one baseball executive. "Five years? Seven years? It could be a while."
Don't be so sure just yet. The game turns over quicker than ever these days. The Red Sox are Exhibit A. They benefited from the Great Dodgers Bailout last year, with the record salary dump in that trade, as well as bringing in nine new players that fit a certain profile for general manager Ben Cherrington: extroverted players who would hold up well under Boston's intense accountability and who could be had for contracts of three years or less. You can add manager John Farrell to the cleanup brigade after the 2012 fiasco. Take a look at the Boston dugout during games, for instance. You will see the starting pitchers on their off days usually at the railing, instead of lounging and snacking back in the clubhouse. That is coming from Farrell.
"I told them there's always something you can learn from being out there and watching the game," Farrell said. "Plus, you should be out there supporting the pitcher when it's his day to pitch. We don't want any satellite groups, guys off doing their own thing, and we don't have them.
"It's not unusual at all to see 20, 22 guys on this team going out to dinner together. It's probably happened five or six times."
Asked who typically organized the group outings, Farrell began by mentioning two of the nine newcomers: pitcher Ryan Dempster and outfielder Johnny Gomes.
The Red Sox are fighting for the best record in the AL, a spot they hold today, and with the best home record in the league (47-25), they would be a dangerous postseason team if they can secure homefield advantage in every round. The Yankees are fighting for their playoff lives, three games back in the loss column (behind Tampa Bay for the right to play a one-game playoff on the road) with 22 games to play. As last night reminded us, no matter who you root for, Yankees, Red Sox or neither, it's a treat that six of those 22 games are against Boston.
2. Boston is built for October
Pitchers are pushed to throw first-pitch strikes, and the numbers bear out the importance of getting ahead with the first pitch. American League batters hit only .229 after they start 0-and-1.
But then you have Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia, who hit back-to-back in the Boston lineup and happily give the pitcher a first-pitch strike almost all the time. The 2-3 hitters in the Red Sox orders have combined for 1,110 plate appearances and only 14 times have they gotten a hit on the first pitch. Often they fake bunts or just watch the first pitch without any intention of swinging.
Why? The normal rules against falling behind don't apply to them. After starting 0-and-1, Victorino is a .294 batter and Pedroia is a .307 batter. Victorino and Pedroia have come to set the tone for the Boston lineup. It forces pitchers to throw more pitches than any other lineup in baseball.
Last night, for instance, Yankees pitchers threw a whopping 230 pitches to cover 10 innings. New York repeatedly could not finish off the Boston hitters. Ten of Boston's 16 hits came with two strikes, including the tie-breaking single by Victorino after he fouled off two nasty pitches. Yankees starter Ivan Nova threw 11 curveballs with two strikes and could only get the Red Sox to chase one of them.
The Red Sox have seen 1,023 more pitches than any other team in baseball. (Minnesota holds a slight edge in pitchers per plate appearance). Yes, having extroverted players who get along in Boston is a big part of the Red Sox turnaround, but talent is the first priority. And the Sox have built a grinding lineup that would seem to be well-suited for playoff baseball.
3. Mr. September
When the Red Sox were down to their last out against Rivera on Thursday night with nobody on base in Yankee Stadium, it was Mike Napoli who gave them life with a single to start the game-tying rally. No surprise there, considering the time of year. Just call Napoli Mr. September.
Napoli is a career .296 hitter in September. That's 45 points higher than he hits over the first five months of the baseball season. His slugging percentage in the month (.619) is the highest among all active hitters (minimum: 100 games), and his OPS (1.010) trails only those of Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols. This September he is off to a .417/.533/.750 start.
"I wish I knew why," Napoli said. "If I did I would do it every month. The one thing I can think of is it's the time of year where you really start looking forward to playing in the postseason."
Napoli figures to be playing in the postseason for the sixth time in the past seven years. His postseason numbers are impressive, too: .272/.373/.457.