By Ryan McGowan
It’s only April, of course. And I know that you can’t win the division in April (but you could lose it – see New York Yankees, 2007).
But is there any doubt after the Red Sox swept the Yankees (as well as their recent nine-game homestand) that the chasms between these two franchises are larger than they have been in a long time?
Bill Simmons has his “Levels of Losing,” but how about the “Ways of Winning?” You want to find different ways to win games? The Red Sox, over the weekend, proved they could win any way they wanted to.
Want a come-from-behind, last-minute, extra-inning thriller? Friday night, Everyday Jason Bay (remember, the replacement for Every Fourth Day Manny Ramirez) deposits a two-run homer off the great Mariano Rivera over the center field fence to tie the game, followed up by the otherworldly Kevin Youkilis walking off the Fenway turf in the 11th. Add in a curious Joe Girardi move in which Rivera was brought into the game with an 0-1 count in the bottom of the 8th, and the 2009 edition of the rivalry was on.
Want a slugfest, complete with major comebacks on both sides and lots of lead changes? Saturday afternoon, the Sox and Yanks played the sixth-longest nine-inning game in major league history, an epic marathon that took 12 pitchers, 385 pitches, and 4 hours and 21 minutes to complete. Boston rebounded from an early 6-0 deficit behind a Jason Varitek grand slam and six RBI’s from Mike Lowell to prevail, 16-11.
Want a tightly-played, every-run-counts, grind-it-out kind of win? Sunday night’s game was a pitcher’s duel between the Yanks’ veteran Andy Pettitte and the Sox’ young sinkerballer, Justin Masterson (thrust into the rotation when Daisuke Matsuzaka went on the disabled list with a sore shoulder) until Boston’s confident young centerfielder turned the night into the Jacoby Ellsbury Show with an electrifying bases-loaded steal of home off Pettitte. Throw in some great bullpen work by the home team, and the Yankees didn’t have a chance.
So what to take from this series?
I am sure that YankTank and the other resident Bronx sycophants around here will argue that it’s only April, that Cody Ransom and now Angel Berroa are obviously not A-Rod, that the Sox didn’t have to face their prize offseason pickup, CC Fatbathia. Wait until they play in the launching pad that is the New Yankee Stadium, they say. Wait until Sabathia mows down the Sox’ meek lineup like Hurley from Lost through a hot pocket.
But the Yankees’ problems stem much deeper than these superficial wounds. The Yankees have been a dysfunctional franchise for years now. They are a franchise built upon a faulty model of team-construction, one that has emphasized spending money on elite, big-name players plopped together into a lineup like a fantasy team. Despite the best efforts of Brian Cashman, the psychopaths in Tampa who are either named Steinbrenner or who lick the boots of the Steinbrenners have continued to insist that the team can continue to plug holes through exorbitant free agent spending on the A.J. Burnetts of the world and the half-ass development of minor league mediocrity such as Ian Kennedy and Philip Hughes. Does anyone in the Bronx remember the Watson/Cashman farm building foundations of the late 1990’s that produced Pettitte, Jeter, Posada, Rivera, Bernie, and only filled in the gaps with hungry free agents? Apparently not.
Meanwhile, Theo Epstein has done exactly what he promised to do when he was hired as the 28-year-old wunderkind GM in 2002: turn the Sox into a scouting and player development machine. While the Yankees were living and dying with bullpen monstrosities like Phil Coke, Jonathan Albaladejo, Edwar Ramirez, and David Robertson, the Red Sox were dominating with Jonathan Papelbon, Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito, and Michael Bowden. Bowden is one of the top prospects in the organization; on 95% of the teams in baseball (including the Yankees), he’d probably be in the major league starting rotation. On the Sox, he can’t even crack the bullpen. Ask Clay Buchholz down in Pawtucket about the Sox pitching depth.
Epstein also has a giant wild card up his sleeve with the gradual rehab of future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, a playoff horse who should be hitting his peak around the time October rolls around. Sure, Josh Beckett got lit up on Saturday, but does anyone not think he will once again pitch like a Texas-bred Jack Morris come playoff time? And Matsuzaka will be his 125-pitches-an-outing self, but will still rack up wins and work his way out of countless self-imposed jams.
The Sox lineup as well has shown no signs of slowing down in the post-Manny era. Bay and Dustin Pedroia are top-15 hitters in the AL, and Youkilis may still be the best-kept secret (and possibly best hitter) in the league. So far, Ellsbury, Lowell, and Varitek are producing at levels higher than their 2008 production. The only question marks appear to be the shortstop position (with hopes that Julio Lugo can recapture some of the offensive form that led Epstein to covet him three years ago) and, curiously enough, designated hitter, where David Ortiz’ 12-month slump has led some New Englanders to suggest the previously unthinkable – Trade Papi?
It says a lot for your franchise when your biggest problem is whether to move David Ortiz to the 5 or 6 spot in the order. It’s a testament to the architects of the Red Sox Way: the ownership trio of John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino; Epstein and his army of stat-heads and sabermetricians; and manager Terry Francona, one of the best (if not the best) in the business who still gets grossly criticized by the self-loathing talk radio crowd whenever a bullpen pitcher gives up as much as a single run. Together, this group has built a culture of winning, consistency, and professionalism that this franchise has never before seen.
As a fan, it makes it all the sweeter that this transformation of franchise culture has coincided with the crumble and fall of the Great Yankee Dynasty. Watching the Sox and Yankees essentially switch roles over the past four or five seasons must have been like being Cro-Magnon Man, seeing dominance over the planet pass from the Neanderthals to your species, waving goodbye to the outdated, evolutionary overmatched predecessors in the Bronx and saying hello to the game’s new dominant organization in the Back Bay.
Of course, the Tampa Bay Rays and defending champs Philadelphia might have something to say about this. But the clear fact from this past weekend is that the Neanderthals are all but extinct. The Cro-Magnons have arrived and are here to stay. Welcome to Boston, A.D. 2009.