Believe the hype: there’s plenty of rivalry to come

Last weekend’s Yankees-Red Sox series did not live up to the hype, especially for Yankee fans. Not even a FOX broadcast replete with Tim McCarver’s stunning stupidity (I can’t believe they gave him Emmy Awards), was enough to make this feel like playoff baseball. None of the starting pitchers were particularly sharp. The defense was worse, with a slew of errors and goofy plays in leftfield by Manny Ramirez and Hideki Matsui in the first and final games of the series. The latter cost the Yankees a chance to split the four-game set.

Even though these games count as much as those played in September, it would be a mistake to put too much emphasis on this mid-April match-up. Before they celebrate too much, Red Sox fans should be reminded that Boston took the last two Patriots’ Day series from the Yankees in 2001 and 2002.

Still, the major factors that will decide the battle between the Yankees and Red Sox have already been revealed. So, here we go:

1) New York’s 4-5 Starters: The reason the Yankees have won six straight AL East titles is because their pitching has been better than Boston’s. Now, more than at any time in the Joe Torre era, the Yankee pitching dominance is in doubt. It’s hard to compete with the Red Sox 1-2 of Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, but with Derek Lowe as the Red Sox no. 3 starter, the Yankees’ 1-2-3 of Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez, and Mike Mussina is at least as good (probably better).

The real question is the back end of New York’s rotation. Boston will be solid with Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo as the 4-5 starters, maybe more so once Byung-Hyun Kim returns to move Arroyo to the bullpen.

On paper, Jose Contreras is a phenomenal no. 4 for the Yanks. He has a mid-90s fastball and a nasty splitter. But, for some reason, he doesn’t have the confidence to throw the ball over the plate. On Sunday, he couldn’t get out of the third inning at Fenway because he was pitching so tentatively, despite a 7-1 lead.

Regarding the no. 5 spot, the Yankees are counting on Jon Lieber. Lieber, currently on the DL, won 20 games in 2001. Like Contreras, he looks really good on paper. But, if Lieber isn’t healthy, the Yankees will have to turn to Donovan Osborne, Jorge DePaula, or Alex Graman. Not good. Maybe El Duque will make a comeback, but the Yankees have a lot riding on Lieber.

2) Healthy Aces: For the past three seasons, Pedro Martinez has faced serious questions about his health. He usually responds by getting shelled in the first week (and terrifying Red Sox fans), before settling down and having another great season. Can he do it again? Martinez is 2-1, but he has been shaky in two starts against Baltimore, and there are concerns about the reduced velocity his new arm angle puts on his fastball.

For the Yankees, Kevin Brown is a major health concern. Brown threw more than 200 innings last season, but he’s 39 and missed most of 2001-2002. How will he hold up?

3) How good are the Lineups?: Last year, the Red Sox were good largely because they had the best lineup in baseball. How good will they be in 2004? Guys like Bill Mueller and David Ortiz had career years. Trot Nixon’s health is questionable, and light-hitting Pokey Reese has replaced Todd Walker at second. The Red Sox pitching is better this season, but will the hitting approach 2003′s production?

The 2004 Yankees have been billed as the new Murderer’s Row, but they haven’t been so far. By the end of the Boston series, they were hitting .217 as a team. Obviously, that doesn’t mean very much. Yes, A-Rod will start hitting. The Yankees will score a lot of runs, but how good will they really be? Some have argued that this team can score 1,000 runs. On the other hand, even when everyone starts hitting, I’m not convinced they’ll be that good. This is a team that will draw a ton of walks and hit home runs, but the Yankees will strike out a lot and won’t steal bases. The Yankee championship teams of the late 90′s and the early 00′s scored by making contact and moving runners with situational hitting. For the last two seasons, the Yanks haven’t been great because they’ve been crippled by strikeouts and double plays in key spots. The same has been true this season. How dominant will this hyped lineup be?

4) Better Bullpens?: Both teams struggled last season with terrible relief pitching. Mariano Rivera helped set the Yankees apart, but now the Red Sox have added Keith Foulke, who led the AL with 43 saves last year. Mike Timlin, Scott Williamson, and Alan Embree will be the principals in setting up Foulke.

The Yankees countered with the acquisitions of Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, who will work with Gabe White to preserve leads for Rivera in the ninth.

So far, both bullpens look much better. Is that a reality? Red Sox fans might be worried that Foulke, a fly ball pitcher, will yield some dingers over the Monster. We’ll see.

5) Pressure vs. Desperation: The $183 million Yankees will be under the vigilant eyes of the New York media and George Steinbrenner. How will newcomers A-Rod, Sheffield, Brown, and Vazquez hold up under the scrutiny?

If the Yankees are under pressure, the Red Sox are desperate. “Pressure” does not begin to describe the expectations of a retooled team that hasn’t won a title since 1918 and came so close to the World Series last year. Fuel to the fire is added by the fact that several key Red Sox, including Pedro, will be free agents after this year.

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