With the Yankees' postseason ticket all but punched and the Red Sox missing the postseason for the first time since 2006 all but official, this weekend's Yankees-Red Sox set represents the first time since the end of the 2008 season that a series between the two teams will be met with mostly yawns given the complete lack of playoff implications (well, aside from some divisional and HFA machinations, but neither of those are worth getting too worked up about in my book).
Sure, there are some interesting aspects to keep an eye on, most notably Andy Pettitte's continued progress back into rotation stalwart, but the unfortunate tale of the 2010 Red Sox and their devastating losses of Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis have relegated this Yankees-Sox series to second-class status. Not that we won't still be watching intently, but for once it'll be nice to not have to live and die with every pitch these two teams throw.
In tonight's game Andy Pettitte (2.81 ERA; 3.90 FIP; 4.05 xFIP) makes his second start since coming back from the DL against a disappointing Josh Beckett (5.71 ERA; 4.17 FIP; 3.98 xFIP). The Yankees have mostly beaten the stuffing out of Beckett this season, tagging him for five earned runs in the season opener, nine earned runs in early May, three runs in another very cold May start at the Stadium (a game in which they led 5-0 and Joba Chamberlain blew a beautiful CC Sabathia start) and seven runs on national television back in August. All of which adds up to an unsightly 11.31 ERA for Josh across 19 1/3 innings against the Yankees this season. Pettitte's only faced the Sox once this year, all the way back in the third game of the season, and was great, giving up only one run over six innings. While Beckett is always capable of domination, I see no reason to expect the Yankees to not continue having their way with Beckett, who just seems lost this season.
In the Fox Saturday Afternoon Game of Death, Ivan Nova (4.78 ERA; 4.37 FIP; 4.16 xFIP) gets his first career nationally televised start against Jon Lester (3.06 ERA; 3.03 FIP; 3.25 xFIP). The hope here is for Nova to get through five innings relatively unscathed before his regularly scheduled unwinding in the sixth. Unfortunately for Nova, Lester is once again in the midst of another outstanding season, having accumulated 5.1 bWAR (4th among AL pitchers) and 5.6 fWAR (also 4th among AL pitchers). He's also had no problem disposing of the Yankees this season -- save for a slightly shaky outing in his first start of the season -- holding them scoreless last month at the Stadium over 6 1/3 innings. This game's Lester's to lose.
And in the finale, Phil Hughes (4.33 ERA; 4.33 FIP; 4.33 xFIP) will face Daisuke Matsuzaka (4.86 ERA; 4.07 FIP; 4.77 xFIP) in the ESPN Sunday Night Heartbreaker. Hughes turned in his first quality start in more than a month in his last outing against the Rays, leading some to hope that he's turning the page on a stretch of less-than-inspiring performances. Hughes has seen Boston thrice this year: He was spectacular in his first start against the BoSox in tossing 7 innings of two-run ball on May 7, 10 days later he was touched up for five runs, and wound up being the tough-luck loser in the aforementioned Lester start back in August, a game in which he threw 6 innings of two-run ball. Dice-K has only faced the Yankees once this season and was lit up to the tune of seven runs over 4 2/3 innings in the wild Marcus Thames walk-off game. I never quite know what to expect from Matsuzaka, who seems equally capable of shutting the Yankees down with his arsenal of wild-but-effective off-speed junk or getting torched. If Phil is indeed on the road to improved pitching, the Yankees should be able to take this game.
Here are the two teams' offense and pitching numbers:
After spending much of the season at or near the top of the offensive heap, the Sox have taken a significant dive from their season averages during the last 30 days, which helps explain why they fell out of the race rather quickly. Surprisingly, their pitching's been rather outstanding during that time, posting the second-best FIP in the league and the top xFIP. Of course, all the pitching in the world can't score you runs. Just ask Jack Zduriencik.
On the season the two teams are pretty much right where you'd expect them to be offensively: neck-and-neck. The Sox's starting pitchers have been pretty excellent with the exception of the second-worst walk rate in the league and a rather high BABIP, though one figures Boston pitchers probably typically suffer every year from above-average BABIPs due to the humongous wall in left field in their home park.
The bullpen (and of course, injuries) has really been the Sox's Achilles' heel this season, with the third-worst ERA and worst FIP in the league, which is what happens when you give up more home runs than anyone else. Interestingly, Boston's starters have the best HR/9 rate in the league, while the bullpen has the worst. I can't imagine that happens all that often.
The Yankees are facing a depleted and demoralized Red Sox team this weekend. Assuming the Yanks clinch their playoff spot in one of the first two games, I imagine we'll see a fair number of scrubs Sunday night. Regardless, the Yankees should still end up taking two of three from this unfortunately weakened Boston team this weekend.
I can't say I ever thought I'd be upset at the idea that (a) Boston would be without several critical players for a series in September, and (b) a series between these two teams with nine games to go has barely an import, but after writing this preview I'm finding that I do feel a touch saddened. As heartbreaking, frustrating and mentally exhausting as Yanks-Sox games have historically been, it's always more exciting when there's something on the line.
But I'll shut up now and realize that I should be quite happy that our arch-rival's season is over and that we won't have to worry about them in the playoffs. Too bad the American League teams that actually are going to the playoffs this year appear to be even stronger on paper than last year's entrants.