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October 8, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

In 1904, on the last day of the season, the New York Highlanders hosted a doubleheader against the Boston Americans, needing 2 wins to win their first pennant. In the ninth inning of the first game, with the score tied 2-2, 41 game winner Jack Chesbro unleashed a spitball that got past the catcher, and brought home the winning run--the third straight win by Boston against the Highlanders. New York won the second game, but in the first go around of the greatest rivalry in sports history, it was the New York team, not the Boston team, that collapsed.

John McGraw refused to face the AL Champions that year, so the Highlanders would have to wait 19 more years--and move across the Harlem and change their name--before they would have had a chance at their World's Championship anyway. The rivalry with the Americans--later the Red Sox--didn't flare up at that early stage, either, as neither team was good at the same time until the late 30's. The Red Sox dominated the American League in the 1910's, while the Yankees spent a lot of time in the cellar. In the 20's, Boston started shipping players to New York--most notably Babe Ruth--and the tables turned.

Since 1918, the Red Sox haven't won a single World Series. They didn't win another pennant until 1946, and have only won four pennants since the sale of Ruth--losing all four series in seven games. Some say they're cursed, I think that's bullshit. The problem with the Red Sox is poor management, and worse luck. They lost to truly great team in 1967, 1975 and 1986, and in 1946, the greatest hitter that ever lived hit .200 in his only World Series. The biggest obstacle has been, of course, the Yankees. When Boston finally became good again in the late 30's, there were the Yankees, dominating the league. Boston won a pennant and made a playoff game in the late 40's, but the Yankees reestablished control in 1949, and by the time they fell off, a generation of good Red Sox teams had lost their shot. The Sox were poised to take over again in the late 70's, but Messersmith/McNally allowed the Yankees to put together a better team than the Red Sox, and free agency ultimately tore the team apart. Boston had some good teams in the 80's and early 90's, but the Blue Jays and A's kept them from reaching the promised land. Finally, in the late 90's, Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez became the centerpiece of some very good Boston teams, but the Yankees had some great teams, and the Sox were shut out again.

Now, the Red Sox have perhaps their best team since 1918. The pitching isn't great, but it isn't awful, either, and they have the best pitcher in the world. The bullpen has struggled terribly, but what makes the Red Sox a truly scary team is their offense, one of the greatest ever assembled. With the Braves and Giants out of the National League Playoffs, the Red Sox, if they get to the World Series, would have to be heavy favorites. Sure, Chicago and Florida are quality teams, with very good pitching, but Boston is far better than either of them. If they can just win the pennant, the light at the end of the tunnel will be visible.

But standing in their way of that dream is, of course, the Yankees. You knew it would come down to this, it almost had to. There may or not be a curse, but there are demons to be exorcised by the Red Sox, and I'm sure a Red Sox fan will tell you, while they didn't want to face the Yankees, but it wouldn't be quite perfect if they didn't beat the Yankees along the way. If the Red Sox win this series and the next, it would be appropriate, and if the Yankees stop Boston's dream, it's equally so. This isn't 1999, where a pretty good Boston team tried to knock off a great Yankees team, these are two great teams going to war. The rest of the country might not like it, but it had to come down to this.

How do the Yankees and Sox match up? Well, I compared them in the middle of the season, and there haven't been dramatic changes since then. The Boston lineup, the best in baseball, is obviously better than New York's, but the Yankees have a very good lineup, too. One thing was made clear in the regular season: the Yankees can't run with the Red Sox, so if Boston is putting a lot of runs on the board, they'll likely win.

Things have really broken the Yankees' way going into this series, most notably with Johnny Damon's injury. The loss of Damon for the first part of the series (maybe the entire series) won't significantly hurt Boston's offense, but it will hurt their defense, as Damon is one of the finest centerfielders in the game, albeit a limp-armed one. The biggest break for the Yankees in terms of impact on the outcome of the series is most likely the fact that the Red Sox went five games in the ALDS, while the Yankees had time to set their rotation. Pedro Martinez won't pitch until Game 3 in Fenway, and unless he goes on short rest in Game 6, or the series goes 7, the Yankees only have to see him once. Yes, the Yankees have had success against the Red Sox when Pedro starts in the past, but you don't want to count on that, and you don't want to face him two times, let alone three.

What's going to decide this series is New York's pitching against Boston's offense. Boston slumped in the ALDS, and they're probably due to break out of it. Mike Mussina is not a likely candidate to get lit up, and while he was torched in early September at The Stadium, Andy Pettitte should probably have a decent performance as well. Red Sox fans are hoping, and Yankees fans are worrying, that Roger Clemens and David Wells will be, once again, the victims of a Boston offensive explosion. If the Yankees win Games 1 and 2, Boston wins 3 and 4, Mussina wins 5, Pedro wins 6...then it's down to the Red Sox vs. Clemens in a Game 7, and while Clemens will probably pitch well in one of the two games he starts, there's still a concern there.

Of course, Boston might also get great pitching, and the Yankees' offense didn't do anything impressive until Game 4 against Minnesota. But with Byung-Hyun Kim possibly out with a tight shoulder and an extended finger, the Red Sox bullpen is really in the hands of Scott Williamson, Mike Timlin and Alan Embree, who aren't bad pitchers, but there's not a "relief ace" in the bunch.

Really, the Yankees, believe it or not, have the best bullpen left in the playoffs. Torre is likely to keep it on a short leash, and go to Rivera whenever he can, but Gabe White, Felix Heredia and Chris Hammond all look capable of giving solid middle relief innings, and Jose Contreras might be able to be a righty stopper. Unfortunately, Torre stopped using Hammond in September, and he didn't give Contreras much of a look out of the bullpen late in the season or in the LDS, so he's an unknown. This series could come down to a late inning matchup between Contreras/Nelson and Garciaparra/Ramirez, and I really don't know how that will turn out--and I'm more than a bit nervous.

What Boston needs is a strong start tonight or tomorrow out of Tim Wakefield or Derek Lowe, they can't leave games in the hands of their bullpen. Oakland wasn't able to take advantage of the Boston pitching, but the Yankees are a far better hitting team than Oakland. If Boston wins one of two in New York, they're in good shape; if they lose both, they're on the ropes, and if they win both, it will probably be the last game at Yankee Stadium this season.

My feeling is that Mussina will give two strong starts, Clemens will keep the Yankees in Game Three, and Pettitte will pitch well at least once, while Wells will be on a short leash. There will be at least one blowout, several close games, and probably one game blown by the Boston bullpen. The Boston lineup isn't quite suited to exploit the Yankees' defense, and the Yankees are as likely to exploit Boston's defense as the Sox are to exploit theirs, so it's a push there. If Boston had won the LDS in four, they would probably be the team I pick here, but things are (as they so often seem to) coming up in the Yankees' favor this postseason, I'm going to go with the Yankees in Six.

A week and a half from today: The World Series--Boston vs. Florida.