Monday August 8th, 2011

BOSTON -- Five Cuts from the weekend in baseball, highlighted by the Red Sox taking two of three games from the Yankees at Fenway Park to take over first place of the AL East ...

1. Advantage: Boston. With Sunday's 3-2 extra-inning win, the Red Sox clinched the 18-game season series over the Yankees by moving to 10-2 in their first dozen meetings, but that head-to-head hex aside, Boston moved only one game ahead of New York in the division standings. The archrivals have gone 9-9 against each other for three straight years, and this is the Sox' first season series victory since 2004, which ought to ring a bell for the year when Boston rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat New York in that season's American League Championship Series 4-3 before winning its first World Series in 86 years.

There are nearly two months and 50 games before the 2011 playoffs begin, during which anything can happen, but barring significant injury, the Red Sox and Yankees could well be on a collision course for another ALCS meeting in mid-October. If they get there, both clubs would presumably prefer to have Josh Beckett and CC Sabathia as their Game 1 starters. And the two have had remarkably disparate results when facing the opposing teams.

So far New York has barely scratched Beckett, who is personally 3-0 and the team 4-0 in his outings against the Yankees. Beckett has thrown 27 innings and allowed just three runs (1.00 ERA) and 16 hits while striking out 30; he received a no-decision for his six innings of one-run ball Sunday night.

Sabathia's record, meanwhile, is very much in the red against Boston. After the Sox pounded him for nine hits and seven runs over six innings on Saturday afternoon, Sabathia fell to 0-4 with a 7.20 ERA in four starts. It's the first time in his career he's lost four times to the same opponent in the same season.

2. The 'pen is mightier. That either of these teams blew a late lead -- as the Yankees did Sunday night when closer Mariano Rivera gave up a double to Marco Scutaro and, later, a sacrifice fly to Dustin Pedroia -- was more than a little unexpected. The Red Sox and Yankees rank second and third in the AL in save percentage, respectively, while New York entered with the AL's best bullpen ERA (3.07) and Boston with the fifth-best (3.50).

Both have been especially effective when the score is close late. The Yankees entered the night with a 65-6 (.915) record when tied or leading after seven innings, and the Red Sox were 68-5 (.932). Almost every team has a prohibitive winning percentage in those situations, but these two are still remarkable. For comparison, look at the records in the same situations for the other primary AL contenders: Tigers 57-8 (.877), Indians 51-8 (.864), Angels 61-14 (.813) and Rangers 58-14 (.806).

Each team has trotted out a dominant eighth- and ninth-inning reliever -- All-Stars David Robertson and Rivera for the Yankees; Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon for the Red Sox -- and both have seventh-inning relievers that can match up. The Yankees signed the high-priced former closer in Soriano, who struggled early in the year but since returning from the disabled list has retired all 12 batters he's faced with five strikeouts. Boston has found a diamond in the rough in Matt Albers. He entered the season with a 5.11 career ERA but has a 2.31 ERA in 46 2/3 innings this season, with the go-ahead home run he allowed to Brett Gardner on Sunday as the rare blemish.

On Friday night the Yankees won thanks to a bullpen that extended itself into the mid innings. Situational lefty Boone Logan struck out Boston's Adrian Gonzalez with the bases loaded in the fifth inning, the first of 4 1/3 scoreless innings hurled by the New York bullpen.

3. The Phillies remain the class of the NL. There should be no disputing that the Phillies are currently the best in their league by a wide margin. Already armed with the majors' best record, they went into San Francisco, home of the defending world champions and current NL West leaders, and won the first three games of the four-game set 3-0, 9-2 and 2-1. Those victories extended their winning streak to nine games and pushed their lead over the Braves -- for both the division and the league's best record -- to an astounding 9 1/2 games.

On Friday night it was a literal fight -- benches cleared after the Phillies' Shane Victorino was hit by a pitch and walked toward the mound; Giants catcher Eli Whiteside tackled Philadelphia's Placido Polanco as he ran toward the plate -- and on Sunday it was more of an inner resiliency as the Giants rode ace Tim Lincecum (7 2/3 innings, one run) to victory over Roy Oswalt (HIGHLIGHTS). On Saturday the Phillies won 2-1 after Cole Hamels defeated Matt Cain in a magnificent pitching duel (HIGHLIGHTS); Cain even allowed fewer base runners (seven to five), reinforcing how slim the margin was and how one break is all San Francisco needed.

One interpretation of those final two games is that, should the Giants bats once again get hot at the right time (read: October), their pitching could carry the day. But the real take-away ought to be this: San Francisco was only close to beating Philadelphia in their home park when its top two starters faced its opponents' Nos. 3 and 4 starters (though calling Hamels and Oswalt a third and fourth starter is hardly fair). Consider that the Giants missed facing Roy Halladay altogether, were shut down by rookie Vance Worley on Friday and were shut out by Cliff Lee, the obvious trump card when comparing last year's Phillies team to this one.

The Giants, who are clinging to the NL West lead over Arizona by a half-game, only scored six runs in the four-game series and remain one of only two major league teams -- along with the 49-64 Mariners -- not to have scored their 400th run yet. The Giants are on pace for 562 runs, which would make them the 33rd team to score fewer than 600 runs in a 162-game schedule since 1982; the first 32 teams to do so won an average of 67 games and only two, the 1988 Padres and 2003 Dodgers, managed a winning record; neither made the playoffs.

4. The Central divisions are taking shape. The top two teams in both the AL Central and NL Central square off in a pair of three-game series starting Tuesday -- the Tigers, who lead the Indians by four games, travel to Cleveland, and the Brewers, who lead the Cardinals by three games, travel to St. Louis -- but this past weekend was more notable for the teams falling off the pace.

On the morning of the trade deadline the Twins were in fourth place but only six games behind the AL Central leader, and they stood firm, believing their in-house talent could carry them to the playoffs. The Pirates were even closer on the same date, sitting in third place and trailing only by 3 1/2 games, prompting acquisitions of first baseman Derrek Lee and outfielder Ryan Ludwick.

Now, however, the hopes of both clubs have sunk. The Twins have lost four straight and the Pirates have lost 10 straight; both are now 10 games out of first pace in their respective divisions.

5. It's beginning to look a lot like Strasmas. Far from any major-league ballpark was one of its most headline-worthy players: Nationals phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg returned to game action -- albeit less than two innings of a Class A game in Hagerstown, Md. -- for the first time in 11 months after having Tommy John surgery. More than 60 media members and a sold-out crowd of more than 6,000 attended the low-level game in the Appalachian Valley.

Strasburg struck out four of the eight hitters he faced in his 1 2/3 innings, allowing a solo home run and two singles in his 31 pitches (25 strikes). According to reports, his fastball regularly reached 96-to-98 mph, which was in line with his 97.3 average fastball velocity in making his 12 electrifying starts last year. "I'm right where I want to be," Strasburg told reporters afterward.

Several players with long-term injuries have said in the past how helpful a short September cameo has been for their psyche, helping them enter the offseason with confidence that their body is back to where it should be. Indeed, a Strasburg return to the majors for a major-league start or two ought to be viewed as an important milestone in his recovery rather than, as some critics have noted, a ploy for the Nationals to sell tickets. Washington, after all, has far more invested in the man to whom it's already given a $15.1 million contract than it does in selling a few extra seats to a handful of games.

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