Tuesday August 30th, 2011

Less than a month after their most recent encounter at Fenway Park, the Yankees and Red Sox are set for another showdown in Boston. Here are five things you need to know about the possible playoff preview between the AL's two best teams that starts on Tuesday night:

1. This series means more to the Yankees than it does to the Red Sox

Both the first-place Red Sox and the second-place Yankees, who trail Boston by 1 ½ games entering the series opener, will reach the postseason in some order -- the nearest wild-card pursuer, the Rays, are now 7 ½ games behind New York -- and surely this week's series will be significant in determining the AL East crown. But how critical is that division title? While playoff seeding and homefield advantage is important, both teams play almost equally well no matter the venue. The Yankees are 41-26 (.612) at home and 39-26 (.600) on the road; the Red Sox are 40-25 (.615) at home and 42-26 (.618) on the road.

Thus, what's really at stake is whether New York can improve on a 2-10 start in the season series (the Sox have outscored them 75-46), whether Yankees ace CC Sabathia can snap a losing streak against the Sox (more on this below) and whether they can finally beat Boston's Josh Beckett. The Red Sox are 4-0 in his starts against the Yankees, while he's given up three earned runs in 27 innings (a 1.00 ERA) and has allowed just a .170 average against. He'll start Wednesday against Phil Hughes.

2. CC Sabathia has to come through

In 2009 and 2010, his first two years with the Yankees, Sabathia went 4-1 with a 3.04 ERA in eight starts against the Red Sox, with New York going 5-3 in those outings. This year, however, it's been a different story: Sabathia is 0-4 against Boston -- the first time he's ever lost four times to the same opponent in one seeason -- with a 7.20 ERA while allowing a .324 average against.

What's curious about the decline this year is that it comes when Boston's lineup has titled more lefty-heavy than ever before, but its lefties have hit southpaws: David Ortiz is batting .345/.438/.626 with eight homers in 162 plate appearances against lefties; Adrian Gonzalez has a .317/.382/.389 batting line in 204 PAs; Jacoby Ellsbury has a .268/.339/.458 line with 19 extra-base hits in 176 PAs; and Josh Reddick has a .303/.361/.455 line in 36 PAs.

Sabathia's struggles did not stop Yankees manager Joe Girardi from arranging his rotation to ensure his ace will face the Sox yet again. This week Sabathia's regular day to start would have been Monday, but the Yankees activated Freddy Garcia from the disabled list to make that start against the Orioles, leaving Sabathia to oppose John Lackey in Tuesday's series opener.

3. A tale of two rotations

Despite Sabathia's difficulties with Boston, he is he has long since cemented his status as the Yankees' No. 1 postseason starter. After him, though, things get dicey. Hughes has a 6.46 ERA on the season and, though he started August 3-0 with 3.63 ERA in his first four starts this month, was beaten up for six runs in 2 2/3 innings by the A's in his last start. A.J. Burnett, meanwhile, has the talent to be a No. 2 starter but his struggles have made him the No. 1 story in the Yankees' universe. His ERA is 5.31 for the season but 11.91 for the month of August, spanning five starts in which he's given up seven or more runs three times and completed the sixth inning only once. His summer swoon has increased speculation that he could be banished to the bullpen and his start Thursday could be his last for awhile if he doesn't perform well.

Indeed, the Yankees' postseason rotation remains in flux after Sabathia. Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova have been their next three most consistent starters, but one wonders if the club would trust Nova, the 24-year-old rookie, with a postseason start, so keep a close eye on how Burnett and Hughes pitch this week, as most Red Sox-Yankees games replicate a playoff environment.

The Red Sox also have questions about the back of their rotation but they appear to have a settled top three in Beckett, Jon Lester, who starts Thursday, and Lackey, who, for all his faults this year, seems entrenched as the No. 3 starter and has playoff experience. Boston even took a step toward securing its postseason rotation by acquiring Erik Bedard at the trade deadline. The Sox continue to use both Tim Wakefield and Andrew Miller as starters, but the schedule changes related to Hurricane Irene allowed both to be skipped in this series and neither would start a playoff game anyway.

4. MVP candidates galore

Though overall season production is the most important criteria for the MVP award, having big games against important opponents can certainly make an impression in the voters' eyes. Aside from the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista (and, depending on one's views of a pitcher's worthiness, Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander) all of the other serious candidates for AL MVP are in this series, including both centerfielders, New York's Curtis Granderson and Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury.

Granderson's year perhaps stands out more because, despite strong power numbers by Mark Teixeira and another quality season from Robinson Cano, his is clearly the best on the Yankees. Ellsbury, meanwhile, must contend with teammates like first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and maybe second baseman Dustin Pedroia for votes. The presence of Bautista and Gonzalez in this race may negate this possibility, but if Granderson and Ellsbury somehow finish 1-2 in the MVP voting, it would be the fourth time Red Sox and Yankee outfielders took the top two spots. Previously this happened in 1941, 1947 and 1957 . . . when fellas by the names of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were involved. Though Williams did win two MVPs, the Yankees won the award in each of the three aforementioned seasons -- and Granderson is a little more deserving than Ellsbury to this point of the season.

Granderson is tied with Bautista for the major league lead with 38 homers, but he holds an outright lead in extra-base hits (68), RBIs (107) and runs (122), the latter of which he leads by 27 (over Ellsbury no less). He could be held down by a sub-par average (.276), but Granderson also leads the AL with 10 triples and has proven to be an efficient baserunner; he has scored 47 percent of the time he reaches base, three points higher than any other player with at least 400 plate appearances.

Ellsbury, meanwhile, has less "black ink" -- slang for statistical leads -- but is having a more well-rounded season, batting .312 with a .369 on-base percentage (comparable to Granderson's .375) to go along with 166 hits, 95 runs, 61 extra-base hits (23 homers), 82 RBIs and 36 steals, all of which rank among the top 11 in the league. According to the Bill James-invented stat of Runs Created, which tries to capture the numbers of runs a player contributes to his team (times on base, total bases, stolen bases, double plays and everything else are all factored in), Ellsbury leads Granderson 104 to 103.

5. Missing in action

Neither team's All-Star third baseman is expected to play in this series. Boston's Kevin Youkilis will be playing Triple-A rehab games this week, as he's on the DL with a strained lower back and not eligible to return to the lineup until at least Friday. New York's Alex Rodriguez has a sprained left thumb for which he was sent to New York for an MRI on Monday. The results reportedly showed no significant damage, but he remains questionable for the series.

A-Rod may not be the only Yankees star to miss time in the series. Shortstop Derek Jeter has sat out the last two games with a sore knee after fouling a ball off it Sunday afternoon. It comes at a bad time, as Jeter has hit well of late, batting .361 after July 9 after hitting just .257 before it. He's likely to appear in the series, but when and how much are unclear.

Both teams have grown accustomed to playing without those particular stars and have proven deep and talented enough to withstand their absences. The Red Sox are 18-5 in games Youkilis hasn't started while the Yankees are 32-18 when A-Rod doesn't start and 20-5 when Jeter doesn't start. All three of those marks translat to winning percentages that are better than the team's overall success rate.

No one would argue that either team is better without these players, but it's clear that no matter how significant this series is to the players or the fans, giving each of them sufficient time to heal is more important than rushing him back. After all, there's a chance these clubs have more important face-offs still ahead.

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