Tuesday May 5th, 2009

On Monday evening, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz stood in the visitor's dugout at new Yankee Stadium wearing short sleeves and a big smile, seemingly oblivious to both the cold rain that had cancelled batting practice and would delay the start of the game and the .208 batting average he lugged with him to the Bronx. "You know why I came out here?" Ortiz asked. "Because I got lost in the clubhouse like three times and I said, 'I'm done.'"

Ortiz may have felt out of place in the new digs, but within hours he and his teammates would look right at home in beating the Yankees 6-4 [Recap | Box Score] in their first game at the $1.5 billion stadium, their fourth straight win against their archrivals to open the season. With a pair of doubles, Big Papi resembled the Yankee tormentor he has been in years past and his team resembled the dominant AL East club they have played like since opening the year 2-6.

After four games between the ancient rivals this season, this much is already clear: the matchups are as compelling and dramatic as ever, but the results have been completely one-sided and may very well stay that way. For the second time in three years, the Red Sox have taken the first four games of the season series with the Yankees, grabbing an early advantage in the standings and sending a message that they have the upper hand in the rivalry.

To be sure, there is danger in reading too much into one game, or even four, but Monday's game provided further evidence first seen in Boston more than a week ago that the Red Sox, moreso than the Yankees, are better positioned for success over the long haul. There was the deep and balanced offense that applied constant pressure to the Yankees by putting multiple men on base eight times in the game, something the Yankees, still missing Alex Rodriguez, and now perhaps Jorge Posada, managed half as often. There was the defense that played flawlessly while the Yankees (two errors, a passed ball, two dropped foul pops and at least three other balls that younger players might have turned into outs) blundered their way to a series of costly miscues. There was the efficient bullpen that worked in and out of trouble over the last two innings thanks to the power arms of Ramon Ramirez (who allowed his first run of the season on a Mark Teixeira homer in the eighth) and Jonathan Papelbon. And there was the often overwhelming starting pitching from Jon Lester, whose stellar performance belied his pedestrian stat line (1-2 with a 5.40 ERA) when the evening began. Lester flummoxed the Yankees all night with a variety of well-placed fastballs on the corners and breaking balls at the knees. Red Sox skipper Terry Francona labeled his lefty's stuff "terrific" and "explosive" and indeed it was as Lester matched a career high with 10 strikeouts.

Such an impressive performance was heightened when placed in stark contrast to the struggles of his mound counterpart, Phil Hughes. Both Lester, 25, and Hughes, 22, have been mentioned as two of the finest young pitchers in the game for some time, but Monday night was the latest evidence that only Lester is still deserving of such praise. While Lester was keeping the Yankees guessing and consistently working from ahead in the count, Hughes was doing the opposite. The Red Sox patiently waited for Hughes to pitch himself into trouble, which, by throwing 94 pitches in just four innings, he succeeded in doing. All told, Boston pounded Hughes for seven hits and four walks in 22 trips to the plate.

By contrast, Lester struck out the side in the first tinning and struck out six men the first time through the order. He silenced not only the Yankees bats but what remained of the announced crowd of 46,426 that had to endure a 2 hour, 17 minute rain delay. Those fans were full of their usual, shall we say, spirit, before the game, when they pelted Lester with venom in the bullpen, but were muted by the weather and by Lester's brilliance. "They were typically loud New York fans," he said afterward. "That's not something you look forward to by any means, but I'd rather have it that way than have them sitting on their hands eating a hot dog."

Boston center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury got similarly rough treatment from the famed bleacher creatures in right-center, even if the taunts did little to faze Ellsbury, like Lester, a starring member of the young nucleus that Boston has and New York does not. "You can still hear them, " Ellsbury said of his tormentors. "But I don't let them know that."

Those same fans greeted Ellsbury's arrival at the plate for the first pitch at 9:22 p.m. with the usual chorus of boos, the first of many signs that although the building was different, everything else about this rivalry would be exactly the same as it has always been. There was the usual amount of intensity and controversy with a dash of bad blood mixed in for good measure. In the fourth inning, Yankees manager Joe Girardi began jawing at Red Sox first base coach Tim Bogar, who returned the favor. Neither man would say exactly what the issue was after the game ("I thought Joe was just checking on [Bogar's] family," said Francona afterward. "They hadn't seen each other in a while.") Yankees relief pitcher Alfredo Aceves brushed back Dustin Pedroia with a fastball in the eighth inning, one of two up-and-in pitches that grazed the whiskers of the reigning AL MVP during that at-bat. And there was Papelbon's typically animated histrionics after striking out Robinson Cano to end the game, a celebration that seemed as suited for autumn as the intensity and length of the game (an unmanageable 3:48) itself.

Afterward, Francona sat in his office and looked at a piece of paper sitting on his desk. He crumpled it up and threw it at Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein standing in his doorway. Without saying a word, the two men exchanged knowing smiles. There was good reason for the playful attitude and cheerful mood exhibited by the Boston brass in the wee hours of Tuesday morning in the Bronx. "It was a long day," said Francona, "that ended up being a pretty good night."

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