2003-10-10 / Sports

Inside Pitch

By Bryan Hoch
Inside Pitch By Bryan Hoch

New York Yankees pitching coach Mel Stot­­tlemyre points as starters Mike Mus­sina, left, Roger Clemens and Andy Pet­titte, right. (AP/Kathy Willens).New York Yankees pitching coach Mel Stot­­tlemyre points as starters Mike Mus­sina, left, Roger Clemens and Andy Pet­titte, right. (AP/Kathy Willens).

If you can’t get excited about an October matchup between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, perhaps you should turn in your sports-viewing permit. There’s plenty of "Joe Millionaire" spinoffs and house improvement shows flooding the airwaves these days; maybe you’d be more comfortable there.

For the rest of us, this week’s ALCS showdown between the Bronx Bombers and the "Cowboy Up" Sox is just about as good as it gets. If you thought it was good during the summer, when the Yankees kept everyone on the edge of their seats to edge the Sox 10-9 in the season series, you haven’t seen anything yet.

You kind of had a feeling that we’d get to this point, with the Yankees proving themselves to be the dominant juggernaut of the American League with a 101-win season and the Red Sox shattering all kinds of offensive records up the Mass Pike – no, we’re not willing to call Boston the best-hitting team in baseball history, but we’ll certainly tag them as the most muscled-up club in the postseason.

It’s easy to excuse Sox second baseman Todd Walker, then, for completely discounting the ongoing battle be­tween the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins as those two Cin­der­ella clubs fight for the right to play on into the final circle.

"The team that wins this (ALCS series) wins the World Series," Walker proclaimed. "We’re the two best teams in baseball. No disrespect to the Cubs and the Marlins, but we’re the best two teams."

If that’s so, then it should be smooth sailing for the Yankees — they just must make those yellowed history pages work in their favor again this fall. It hasn’t been much of a problem in years past.

Yes, you know the deal by now. The Sox are the team that traded away Babe Ruth to finance a Broadway flop, played host to Bucky Dent’s blast in 1978, sent poor hobbled Bill Buckner onto the field in 1986, and – most overlooked of all – passed on future legends Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson due to the overt racism that once seep­ed out of the cracks of Fenway Park.

They are baseball’s perennially cursed, seemingly forever destined to be left on the doorstep of the big dance, the runner-up prom king, RC Cola to the Yankees’ Coke. 1918 lives, at least in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium.

"Until you win one, the Yankees fans are going to keep on saying it," Bos­ton’s Derek Lowe notes. You can see the difference in the way the two cities, forever linked by their American Revolution-era shipping brotherhood, reacted to their respective teams’ victories. In Boston, Red Sox Nation practically rioted in the streets around Fenway, flipping cars and taking joyrides on fire engines. Here, Yankee fans yawn and scout the pitching matchups for the World Series.

We’re all conditioned now to accept that the Yankees own October – just as the NRA tries to convince us that it’s their Constitutional right to bear arms, the pinstripers bellow that it’s Yankee Stadium’s natural purpose to host postseason baseball – mystique, aura, glory, triumph; they all hibernate at 161st St. and River Avenue in the Bronx.

Yet, while it’s still tangible on the streets and in the grandstands, we wonder where that trademark Yankee swagger and pomp has gone within the organization. George Steinbren­ner, who we love for steadily giving us great copy, released a mind-boggling statement this week reminding the free world just who the Yankees are (how dare those Red Sox even think this could be their year!), and that in Bomber-land, "winning is second to breathing."

Thanks for checking in, George, but are we perhaps throwing up a smoke-screen here? As the minor undercurrent of trembling around the Yankees would seem to indicate, the team knows that they certainly have their chinks in the armor. Most of it centers around a tender underbelly of the bullpen that the Minnesota Twins failed to exploit in the Division Series.

In the ALDS, every Yankees starter threw at least seven innings, sparing Joe Torre the nail-biting experience of handing the ball over to unproven post­season pitchers like Jose Con­treras, Felix Heredia and Gabe White. The latter two of that group were cashing paychecks from the Cincinnati Reds’ payroll department as recently as August.

But Boston, who are going to have to pride themselves under manager Grady Little’s philosophy of Pedro Mar­tinez, Derek Lowe, and pray for snow, is even more questionable in the pitching de­partment.

Beyond Martinez (9-8, 2.88 ERA lifetime vs. New York) and Lowe (2-0, 5.55 ERA this season vs. New York), the Sox are resting their World Series hopes upon the shoulders of a trick pitcher, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, and graying righty John Burkett, who draws an unfair matchup against David Wells in Game Four. The Yankees will be dismayed, however, to learn that their old friend Byung-Hyun Kim won’t be allowed anywhere near the pitching rubber in any of the games.

Let’s not mince words: these aren’t the powerhouse Yankees of 1998, that’s for sure, and we wonder how they’ll handle the Cubs’ Mark Prior and Kerry Wood if it should get to that point. But in the here and now, this clash between two great but flawed AL clubs, we’re betting the Yankees will expose Boston’s shortcomings first.

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