Yanks-Red Sox: It's early

ON BASEBALL

April 25, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are back at it this weekend, with volatile pitcher Pedro Martinez taking the mound today in the finale of a three-game series at Yankee Stadium that is proving, well, that it's hard to prove anything in April.

The Yankees have been in a funk for three weeks, but it probably has more to do with a post-Japan hangover than anything that has happened in the six games they've played so far with the Red Sox.

The Red Sox have simply been one of the beneficiaries, a team with enough good pitching to make it even more difficult for the Yankees to right themselves and assume their usual position atop the American League East standings.

Case in point: Yankees starter Mike Mussina is 1-4 with a 6.67 ERA, but only one of his first five starts was against the Red Sox and he didn't pitch that badly in that outing, allowing three earned runs in five innings.

Everything seems to be out of sync in New York. Newly acquired superstar Alex Rodriguez struggled early to keep his batting average above .200, raising questions about his ability to handle the pressure of playing in the Big Apple. Team captain Derek Jeter also is in a slump, raising questions about his ability to handle the pressure of playing next to Rodriguez.

Slugger Jason Giambi remains a central figure in baseball's troublesome steroid controversy, and - if that isn't enough - new center fielder Kenny Lofton already appears to have worn out his welcome in the Yankees' clubhouse.

Of course, all of this is great news to the Red Sox, who have an opportunity to pick up a few games in the standings while the Yankees sort things out, but they know that the Yankees eventually will do just that.

There are too many great players on the Yankees' roster for them to struggle for long, and manager Joe Torre is too good at crisis management for any situation to get completely out of hand.

The two early series against the Red Sox have been great for baseball - even if you don't believe the hype. The carryover from last year's thrilling AL Championship Series gave the sport an April jump-start and put the nagging steroid issue temporarily out of mind (except for the Red Sox fans who badgered Giambi about it every time he came to the plate at Fenway Park).

But no one should have expected the first seven games to settle anything. Maybe the picture will be a little clearer when the head-to-head rivalry resumes in late June.

Cold feet?

Martinez has made four starts - two against the Orioles and two against the Toronto Blue Jays. He is 0-1 with a 7.36 ERA against the Orioles and 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA against the Blue Jays.

So, was it the competition or the temperature? In the two games against the Orioles, the game-time temperature was below 50 degrees, bolstering the notion that Martinez does not pitch well in cold weather. The starts against the Blue Jays were under more temperate conditions.

Flying fish

It was during the final week of spring training that Philadelphia Phillies manager Larry Bowa pondered the distasteful prospect of watching the Florida Marlins receive their World Series rings at Pro Player Stadium and decided that it might be a good thing.

"I hope it motivates us," Bowa said.

Not quite.

The Marlins swept the first series against the supposed National League East favorites in Florida and just repeated the favor at Citizens Bank Ballpark. The defending World Series champions have won nine straight and 18 of their past 20 against the Phillies.

Hitting machine

Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis has six hits in nine at-bats this year and owns a .299 career batting average (.329 if you count postseason), but manager Jack McKeon said Tuesday that he will not move Willis up from the ninth spot that pitchers traditionally occupy in the batting order.

"I've done that in the minor leagues a lot of times," McKeon said. "I hit one guy fifth, Jackie Collum. We were so bad that in the games he won he usually drove in the runs for himself. But it's a little different day in and day out at this level."

The last word

Former New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips has been offered the chance to host a weekend talk show on the local ESPN Radio affiliate in New York.

"It is a lot more fun being on this side of the microphone than on the other side of the microphone," Phillips told the New York Post last week.

It should be. Phillips looked like a genius when the Mets went to the World Series in 2000, but he quickly fell out of favor as the most expensive team in franchise history ($120 million total payroll) lost 95 games in 2003.

Good as advertised

New Red Sox closer Keith Foulke has five saves in five opportunities and an 0.64 ERA in 11 appearances. Including yesterday's two scoreless innings to get the win over New York, he has allowed just 13 runners in 14 innings and has quickly allowed the club to forget last April's abortive closer-by-committee arrangement.

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