Red Sox, Yanks set for immediate playoff dash -- thanks to the Rays
The Red Sox and Yanks focused on defense and chemisty during the offseason
Strangely, both teams tried to counter moves made by the conservative Rays
The AL East could easily produce a 90-win club that finishes in 3rd place
BOSTON -- While seeking the player parking lot more than four hours before the game's first pitch, new Red Sox centerfielder Mike Cameron turned onto Lansdowne Street behind the Green Monster and was surprised that even then the road was overflowing with fans.
"It looked like a block party," Cameron said.
The players may be somewhat interchangeable, but the Red Sox-Yankees machine relentlessly pushes onward. Boston's victory song, Dirty Water, was still playing as the clock struck midnight at the conclusion of another nearly four-hour slugfest, this one ending 9-7 Red Sox. Each team swatted 12 hits, with winning Boston led by Kevin Youkilis' three extra-base hits and Dustin Pedroia's two hits, including a home run and three RBIs.
This rivalry has retained its marketing luster -- hence its opening night, national-television placement -- even if Sunday game didn't become Fenway Park's 551st consecutive sellout until late March. But the establishment of the Rays as an annual contender (for at least the few years as they can keep their current young core together) has pushed the makeup of the Red Sox and Yankees.
As Rays general manager Andrew Friedman said during spring training, "The standard for roster construction is extremely high in this division. It compels you to do things that you may not do in another division, to try to play into one of potentially two spots."
The low-budget Rays, for instance, were willing to gamble on a high-priced reliever, $7.25-million Rafael Soriano, believing that a solidified bullpen was their primary missing link last season. The changes in Boston and New York stressed that high standard, too. The Red Sox sought increased balance, focusing as much on run prevention as creation, and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman allowed World Series heroes Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui to leave and filled holes with trades and low-cost signings, rather than New York's more customary practice from earlier this decade of outbidding everyone on the top free agents.
On Sunday night, there were five offseason acquisitions in the starting lineups -- designated hitter Nick Johnson and centerfielder Curtis Granderson for the Yankees; third baseman Adrian Beltre, Cameron and shortstop Marco Scutaro for the Red Sox. All of those new faces made early contributions, too, as Granderson hit a solo homer, Johnson walked twice, Beltre drove in two runs on a sacrifice fly and a sixth-inning single, Cameron added two singles and a walk and Scutaro had two singles, a walk and an RBI.
Those changes will become more apparent later in the week, when Boston's John Lackey and New York's Javier Vazquez -- two pitchers who have made Opening Day starts for other teams -- make their debuts from spots deep in their teams' rotations.
Bringing home the contrast were some of the rivalry's recent notables in non-participatory roles. It was familiar to see Pedro Martinez throw to Jason Varitek -- high and tight, no less, with the Yankees in town -- but on this warm spring evening, the pair was relegated to the opening act, reunited batterymates for a ceremonial toss. Nomar Garciaparra was here, but in a suit for his new role as television broadcaster. (In a strange juxtaposition Dr. Dre roamed the field before the game wearing a Red Sox jersey.)
The cracks are getting larger in the totalitarian control Boston and New York have on the American League East. These two clubs have combined for 23 out of a possible 30 playoff berths in the 15 years of the wild-card era, but Tampa Bay's surge, complete with 2008 AL pennant, has put a scare in everyone. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has said that Boston's front office foresaw the Rays' emergence but, he admitted, "They arrived a couple years before we thought they would. The athleticism and the quality defense that followed jumped right out at us. We could see it building with a good job drafting and some excellent trades."
(To a lesser extent, the growth of the Orioles' nucleus has gotten notice, too. After getting beaten around by Baltimore in two straight outings last season, Boston starter and future Hall of Famer John Smoltz exited the second game, asking "This is the team in fifth place?" The O's added a few proven veterans this winter and should be markedly better.)
"The competition is a lot stiffer and deeper in this division," Cashman said of the AL East. "If teams in the Central and West are being honest, they'd say the same thing."
Little, of course, can be learned from just one game, except perhaps, that neither team's pre-ninth inning bullpen should be trusted. New York's relievers allowed four runs in 2 2/3 innings, while striking out only one; Boston's Ramon Ramirez gave up two runs in 1/3 an inning, both of which were inherited runners that Hideki Okajima allowed.
Otherwise, the season series will likely even out. The Yankees, after all, started 0-8 against the Red Sox last season before going on to win the World Series; overall in the reignited rivalry era (2003 and onward) the Yankees lead by a slim 67-64 margin, with neither team winning any single season series by more than 11-8.
It's a different culture for the new players. Upon leaving the Blue Jays and signing with the Red Sox, Scutaro admitted that in Toronto, "if we played .500 ball, we were kind of happy." But having come to Boston, his vantage point has changed considerably. "Now, I'm on the winning side," he said. "Everything looks better."
Since donning a Boston uniform, Cameron's answer to many questions, whether they've been about bumping Jacoby Ellsbury out of centerfield or about making his Sox-Yankees debut, has been this: "I've just got to play my ass off."
There's no let-up in this rivalry or in this division, so it's time, as Cameron said, to "open the gate up and let's start the journey."
Only 161 more steps to take.
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