Yankees face crucial Boston series

Johan Keri takes a look at the Yankees' schedule for the upcoming week
08/26/2007 4:10 PM ET
By Jonah Keri / The Associated Press

Andy Pettitte will face Matsuzaka.(AP)
Strong recent play by the Mariners and Red Sox has left the Yankees on the outside looking in for a playoff spot. But that could change quickly this week. A three-game summit against Boston at Yankee Stadium could go a long way toward telling us if the Bombers have a shot at the AL East title. Three against the Devil Rays over the weekend could provide a great opportunity to win some games and make up ground on the Wild Card lead. No rest for the wicked, though, as the week starts with the final installment of a four-gamer against the always tough Tigers.

Yankees at Tigers

Game 4: Mike Mussina vs. Justin Verlander

Moose Tracks: Mike Mussina's last two starts have been the stuff of nightmares. Facing the Tigers on Aug. 16, Moose yielded seven runs (six earned) before being pulled after five innings. His performance against the Angels Aug. 21 was considerably uglier: seven runs allowed in just 1.2 innings. Those two shellings prompted speculation that Joe Torre might pull Mussina from the rotation, with the Yankees calling up top pitching prospect Ian Kennedy to take his place.

Cooler heads have prevailed since then. A closer look at Mussina's last two outings, both on the statistical side and on a pitch-by-pitch observational basis, shows some cause for optimism. Moose's command was certainly off a bit during this stretch: He allowed four walks over 6.2 innings, and generally had some trouble spotting pitching exactly where he wanted. On the flip side, he gave up just one homer in those two starts, a grand slam against Carlos Guillen. A Ryan Raburn double was the only other extra-base hit Mussina allowed in that game against the Tigers. What did him in that start was a death by a thousand cuts, or in this case, seven singles. Tigers hitters repeatedly kept finding holes in the Yankees' defense. That they were even more successful with runners on-including Guillen's grand slam-was Mussina's biggest problem. The Angels blowout saw five of the seven hits Mussina allowed go for extra bases, in this case all doubles. But even then, the Angels authored a number of seeing-eye hits-bouncers down the line and just barely under a glove, balls hit between two outfielders, and all other manner of hit 'em where they ain't results.

Even the best pitchers can run into a rough patch over a period as short as 6.2 innings. That's doubly true when it comes to allowing inside-the-park hits, where luck and defense can often play a bigger role than what the pitcher's actually throwing that day. Credit the Tigers and Angels too, the 2nd and 4th-best offensive teams in the AL, for making consistent contact. With that said, unless Mussina's hurt, it's highly unlikely that Torre would send his old warhorse to the bullpen in favor of a pitcher who started this season in A-ball. Sure, Kennedy has the pedigree of a very good pitching prospect, and fellow farmhands Philip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain have shown flashes of greatness with the big club. But in both those cases, the Bombers had obvious holes to fill. Mussina may not be the ace-caliber pitcher he was half a decade ago. But nothing in his recent results would suggest that he's done either. The Yankees would do better to let good luck catch up with Mussina. Besides, if Kennedy keeps dominating at Triple-A, there will always be room for him in the Yankees bullpen.

Game Prediction: Tigers win and take three out of four in the series. On the plus side, Mussina shows signs of improvement.

Red Sox at Yankees

Game 1: Andy Pettitte vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka
Game 2: Roger Clemens vs. Josh Beckett
Game 3: Chien-Ming Wang vs. Curt Schilling

Rookies of the Year: If you were voting on the AL Rookie of the Year award today, you could do a lot worse than to rank the top three as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima and Dustin Pedroia. Dice-K has been just as good as advertised (3.76 ERA in a hitter's park, 172 Ks in 170 IP), establishing himself as the one of the top pitchers in the league and spearheading the Red Sox's surge to No. 1 in the AL in team ERA. Okajima has been a godsend for the Boston bullpen (1.17 ERA in 61.2 IP), providing shutdown relief work in the 8th inning all season long before moving a set-up timeshare with recently acquired Eric Gagne. Pedroia's instantly established himself as one of the top second basemen in the league, his numbers (.321/.394/.443) ranking up there with Brian Roberts, Placido Polanco and Robinson Cano among the AL's elite.

It's tough to leave Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie out of the Rookie of the Year discussion, considering he's also a fringe Cy Young candidate. Meanwhile, first-year Royals starter Brian Bannister has been one of the most consistent and unheralded pitchers in the game this season. Give Matsuzaka the trophy, then rank the other however you want. Either way, the Red Sox, like the Yankees with Cano, Hughes, Chamberlain and Melky Cabrera, have reaped huge dividends from their youth movement.

Power Outage: A couple of key Red Sox hitters have struggled in recent weeks, especially in the power department. Manny Ramirez has just one homer in the month of August. Meanwhile, Kevin Youkilis recently went 12 games without an extra-base hit, before showing a few signs of life last week. Then again, this is a different team than we're used to seeing from the Red Sox. Thanks largely to Matsuzaka and Okajima, Boston leads the AL in ERA as one of only two teams with a mark under 4.00 (Toronto is the other). Though still potent offensively, the Red Sox have dropped to 3rd in the league in runs scored, well behind the Yankees and Tigers.

The old adage holds that pitching and defense tends to win out in the playoffs. A study of 25 years worth of playoff results in the book "Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know about the Game Is Wrong" bears that out, with a little more precision: Teams with two top starters, a great closer and good defense tend to fare best in the post-season. With Josh Beckett and Matsuzaka at the top of the rotation, Jonathan Papelbon still one of the most dominant closers in the game (with help from Okajima) and the Red Sox 2nd in the AL in Baseball Prospectus' Defensive Efficiency stat (the percentage of balls in play converted into outs), all the ingredients could be in place for an October run. They'll need to get by the Yankees first.

Series Prediction: The teams split the first two games before Wang tops Schilling in the biggest mismatch of the series.

Devil Rays at Yankees

Game 1: Philip Hughes vs. Andrew Sonnanstine
Game 2: Mike Mussina vs. Edwin Jackson
Game 3: Andy Pettitte vs. Jason Hammel

Catching a Break: The Devil Rays rank dead last in the majors in pitching, with the only team ERA over 5.00. That's a match made in heaven for the Yankees, whose MLB-best offense has been especially blistering in the second half of the season. But wait, it gets better. The Bombers miss both Devil Rays ace Scott Kazmir and emerging No. 2 starter James Shields in this series. Edwin Jackson has picked up the pace lately, showing a few signs of the top prospect status he held a few years ago. Still, the year-to-date ERAs of Jackson, Andrew Sonnanstine and Jason Hammel tell the tale: 5.49, 6.38 and 7.43.

On the Defensive: Taking another look at Defensive Efficiency, we find the Rays dead last again in MLB, converting only 66% of the balls hit in play against Tampa pitching into outs. That stat goes a long way toward explaining the Rays' cumulative Opponents' Batting Average, which sits just under .300 for the season, also worst in the majors. Tampa pitchers thus need to rely on strikeouts more heavily than most teams, knowing that balls put in play could become an adventure. Considering Kazmir and Shields are the Rays' two best strikeout pitchers, tough, we could see some Nintendo scores in this series.

Series Prediction: Yankees get a much-needed three-game sweep as the improved Rays offense isn't enough to overcome their poor pitching and glovework. comments