I can't remember another time we got an off-day before the start of another apocalyptic Yankees series. I like it. It gives us time to gather our thoughts.
So the first order of business for me with this series coming up is the pitching matchups, which look to be the best both teams have to offer, lined up in quite possibly the ideal series of pairings. Tomorrow night, Daisuke Matsuzaka is up against Andy Pettitte. Wednesday--and I can hardly contain my excitement about this--Josh Beckett is matched against Roger Clemens. And finally, Thursday, Curt Schilling faces Chien-Ming Wang.
In my mind, all the matchups revolve around Wednesday night's main event. The story lines there are multitudinous--not just about the teams but about the individual pitchers. Any biography about Josh Beckett is sure to mention that he grew up idolizing his fellow pitching Texans, and Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens are usually mentioned in those descriptions of Joshie's boyhood heroes by name. How often does a marquee matchup take place between two starting pitchers in which one idolized the other? In which one plays for the Red Sox and one plays for the Yankees? In a relatively meaningful, late-season series?
Roger set the template, if you will, for pitchers like Josh in the current era. In fact, as noted by Tom Verducci in his profile on Daisuke Matsuzaka for SI earlier this year, young pitchers in America are now purposefully taught a delivery motion and mechanics based on the delivery of Roger Clemens. I can only assume Josh Beckett, young enough at least technically to be Clemens' son, is among them (not to mention Clay Buchholz, another Texan who beat Roger in his AA rehab start several months ago). Beckett also fits the body type of the power pitcher epitomized by the young Clemens, and like the young Clemens, has been known to fall in love with his fastball. Seeing the two as mirror images of each other, each at opposite ends of their careers, is a rare treat to savor regardless of the outcome of the game. (That said, I hope Beckett shows Roger why he should've hung it up.)
And finally, this matchup has some personal implications for me. One of the first baseball players I could name was Roger Clemens; as a young Red Sox fan I saw him pitch at Fenway. And as anyone reading this blog for longer than five minutes this season knows, in modern times Beckett has become the big man on campus around Yawkey Way, occupying the precise spot vacated by Roger for Toronto so many years ago. The two of them facing each other gives me a weird feeling that things have come full circle, at least in that one small aspect of the game.
The next most exciting matchup in my opinion is the one between Matsuzaka and Pettitte. Here there is an age difference as well, though not as stark as that between Roger and Josh, but in experience the gap is wide. Matsuzaka, of course, is a rookie, while Pettitte has been around this Sox-Yankees block before. Pettitte has always, in my recollection, stepped up as a big-game pitcher, while Daisuke remains unproven in that respect. If Daisuke is "on" and the bats can support him, he still has a good chance, but those are both big "if"s.
And then we have Curt. The fact that it is Beckett and not Curt chosen to face off against Roger in my opinion is an aspect of this week that should not be overlooked. It's true that the rotation this week falls into line with the "regular" rotation over the last couple of months with Beckett following Daisuke, but let's not forget all the Lester / Buchholz / Tavarez machinations already taken by the team in order to line up the pitching for this week, and tonight's off night. If they really wanted to, they could have put Curt in that slot, and they didn't. That's as much of an overt torch-passing as I think you're going to see.
However, since Game 3 could very well be the rubber game, it's not a knock on Curt. We may still need him to come up big, and meanwhile Wang has shown that he has the power to be the stopper for the Yankees.
Someone walked up to me today and commented that with a 7.5-game lead, the relevance of this series has diminished. I couldn't disagree more. First of all because I don't think a Yankees-Red Sox series in late August could ever be a non-event, even if both teams were out of contention. With even the slightest possible implications for standings in the division or playoff hopes, it's on. Always.
I also think that "even" with a 7.5 game lead, a sweep for the Sox in this series would fling us right back into "less than 5 games up omg omg omg" territory again, and, worse, would prove that the Yankees really have gotten their act together and are a force to be reckoned with in the division and the league. I don't know about you, but I'd personally rather be poked in the eye with a sharp stick than see that happen.
Meanwhile, a Sox sweep would all but bury the Yankees in the division (the Sox were 10 games back in 04, of course, but not on Sept. 1), and depending on how the Mariners play, could seriously hurt their chances for the Wild Card. Again, I don't know about you, but after having read the statistic that the Red Sox have been in first place on May 29 or later for each of the last eight seasons, and the Yankees have still won the division every time, I'm not taking this series lightly by any means. It's time for the Sox, so clearly the better, more balanced squad this year, to finally claim this division once and for all, something they couldn't do even in the recent years they went deep into October.
Series wins for either team probably would have less of an impact, but in the same direction as the above.
I'd say there's still quite a bit on the line, wouldn't you?
Now throw on top of that the weirdness of the presence of Pettitte and Clemens. They are "new" for the Yankees this year, as their older and wiser selves, but of course are far from new to the rivalry, and games like this. It's caused me no small amount of cognitive dissonance to consider that the two of them were such iconic figures in 2003, skipped the biggest year of all the next season, and are now popping back up again. Even without all the rest, the potential "chemistry" implications of their return, especially together, is something I am looking forward to with interest. I will be especially interested to see what each of them has to say following their starts about the atmosphere and how it felt to come back to it, how it compares, because you know the reporters are going to ask all those questions.
One thing I will not do, though you can rest assured that this series has been top of mind for me for at least the last two weeks, is make predictions. Because Red Sox-Yankees series have been taking years off my life for long enough for me to know one thing for certain: when these teams get together, no matter what the standings, no matter what the implications, no matter what their respective strengths and weaknesses, anything is possible. And if history is any indication, the one thing this rivalry does best is defy expectations.
That's what Apocalyptic Baseball is all about.
P.S. Thank you, NESN! *clap clap clapclapclap*
P.P.S. As soon as the pitching matchups were set, Gordon Edes did the natural thing and scurried off to find Josh Beckett and ask him about facing Roger. Here are the quotes:
"When I was younger, I used to try to pitch like him in the street when we were playing home run derby," Beckett said during the '03 Series of Clemens.
"My dad worked with his brother in the oil fields, and [Clemens] actually signed a ball for me. I was about 11 or 12. I've got probably a whole binder full of his baseball cards."
Now, in the name of all that is good, holy and still wears a Boston cap, go out there and kick his geriatric ass.