One night after an offensive outburst so drastic that it resulted in two Red Sox pitchers being dismissed from the team, Friday's contest between the Yankees and the Red Sox lived up to the considerable hype, billing it as the best pitching matchup in a series loaded with quality on both sides of the chalk.
A heavyweight bout between former Marlins young-gun hurlers Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, both pitchers stifled the opposition's lineup during their part of the 15-inning marathon that ensued due in no small part to their contributions of dominance. It was a game that was the polar opposite of the Yankees' Thursday blowout of the Red Sox that featured affluent offensive and very little quality pitching. The result of the antithetical proceedings of Friday's contest produced arguably the best game played yet this year in all of baseball.
The headline story of the first half of this epic matchup was the flawless starting pitching by both men apposing each other on the mound. Josh Beckett immediately silenced a Yankee offense that posted 13 runs only the night before, allowing zero runs over seven innings, striking out seven and walking only two. Beckett — pulled apparently because of his pitch count — was masterful as he mowed through the talented Yankee lineup with power, command and efficiency.
His former Marlins' teammate, and opposition for the day, was even better. Over 7 1/3 innings AJ Burnett allowed only one hit (to Jacoby Ellsbury, the first batter in the first inning) and struck out six while walking six. Burnett erased the memory of his last brutal start against Boston in Fenway back in June in which he lasted only 2 2/3 innings, plowing through the Red Sox lineup featuring great velocity if not outstanding command. He was effectively wild and threw strikes when it counted, completely shutting down the Boston lineup after the first batter of the game.
When both starters exited the game, the score stood at a 0-0 gridlock, and it would stay that way for the next seven innings that followed. Both team's showed off the depth and skill of their respective bullpens (although neither may have enough arms left to finish the series), with Boston using eight pitchers (including Beckett) while the Yankees sent six men to the mound themselves.
For New York, an area that was once a huge question mark was displayed on Friday as an evolved strength. Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera were their usual dominate selves and Alfredo Aceves showed he is once again acclimated to his bullpen role, throwing three scoreless innings and allowing only one hit over that span. Brian Bruney also displayed a notable return to form, hurling two scoreless innings for the Yanks, allowing only one hit and striking out two. Phil Coke — the winning pitcher of record — threw another scoreless inning to secure the win. Coke continued to provide the Yankees with an effective lefty that will be crucial for the team down the stretch. In all, the Yankees pitching staff surrendered a meager four hits in 15 innings against a team that is easily amongst the top five in all of baseball. While it is only one game, when put together with their recent record and statistics, this game should punctuate the concept that the Yankees' bullpen has gone from arguably their biggest weakness early in the season to one of their greatest strengths just past the half-way point.
Boston — a team noted for their pitching depth all season — was just as effective until the very end of the game when the reserves were totally depleted. After Beckett exited the game, six Boston pitchers combined for 6 1/3 innings allowing zero runs on only one hit. They matched the Yankees inning for inning until the fatal 15th, when Junichi Tazawa entered the game to make his major league debut at a quite unfortunate time.
Things began to unravel immediately for the 23-year-old rookie. Facing Derek Jeter as one's first opponent in the majors in the 15th inning of a crucial contest between the game's two biggest rivals, right smack in the middle of a pennant race, is a tough spot to be in, even if you're not making your Major League debut. Jeter promptly singled to shallow center, finally collecting a his first hit in a tough 1-for-7 day for the Yankees' captain. Following a Mark Teixeira strikeout, Alex Rodriguez stepped to the plate with yet another chance to come through in a crucial situation against the team Yankees fans hate most and also provide some kind of counter-argument to the volley of critics who lament his play in the clutch.
Going 1-for-6 into the at bat, it had been another day of struggles at the plate for A-Rod who had to that point gone 72 at bats without hitting a home run. But in the earliest hours of a new day — over five hours into the game — A-Rod provided perhaps the greatest symbolic indicator that the balance of power in the rivalry has once against shifted dramatically. With Derek Jeter standing on first base, Alex Rodriguez finally came through in the clutch, and he did so in a massive way, slamming a soaring home run to deep left center field, and adding yet another psychological scar to an emotionally and physically battered Red Sox team and fanbase. A-Rod, whose dinger tied Harmon Killebrew on the career home run list, may have finally gotten the hit he needed to satisfy his psychological need to feel like a "real Yankee."
In two games the Yankees have mentally and physically beaten up on the Red Sox in every way possible. In the opener on Thursday the Yankees demonstrated their ability to dominate a ballgame despite sub-par pitching from their starter. And on Friday night, the Bombers showed that, even when their offensive attack is kept in check — as it was by the Red Sox ace Mr. Beckett — the Yanks have both the starting pitching and the bullpen to hang with, and surpass, the once vaunted depth of the Boston pitching staff, providing the Bombers' offense ample time to do their part to ensure victory (as inevitably happened with Alex in Friday's game).
There are perhaps no two more psychologically damaging ways to lose a baseball game than getting embarrassingly pounded one night and then having your heart ripped out by your opposition's theatrical drama in a draining 15-inning marathon. The Red Sox are professionals and will take the field on Saturday with their complete focus on winning the game in front of them, but it is impossible for a team made of tangible human beings to not feel the effects of the emotions stemming from the manner in which the Yankees have beaten the Red Sox in the first two games of the series.
New York now stands 4.5 games ahead of Boston in the AL East standings and possesses the best record in the MLB. The team is built solidly top to bottom, the only apparent weakness is the continued lack of an effective fifth starter, but examining the state of Boston's rotation, this problem is obviously not exclusive to New York and therefore should not be fatal as long as the team can find someone serviceable and capable of keeping his starts competitive. (Chad Gaudin, maybe?)
Statistics and standings aside, a large part of the game of baseball is mental and emotional. The thoughts, feelings, and conclusions that the fans, players, and coaches will draw from the series thus far will undoubtedly hurt the confidence of the Sox as a whole, while providing a further boost to a Yankees team that has been on a tear since late June transforming into the best team in baseball.
Regardless of one's feelings over the outcome, Friday's game is yet another affirmation that this rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees is still the greatest in all of sports. One day after a blowout, the same two teams got together and dually put on two of the best displays of team pitching seen yet this season. From Burnett and Beckett battling it out, to the tense, nail-biting outs secured by the bullpen pieces, to the thunderously dramatic Alex Rodriguez walk-off home run that ended it all, this was not only one of the most exciting games of the season but it is perhaps the absolute best in terms of the quality of the overall fundamental play.
The game is an instant classic and stands among the historically best games between the two teams. If the Yankees find themselves still in first place at the conclusion of the season many will look at this series — and likely Friday's pitchers dual specifically — as the apex of the turning point for the team. The time when the this new crop of Yankees finally proved that not only could this version of the team beat the rest of the American League, they can also claim victory over Boston, whether the teams slug it out at the dish or operate surgically from the mound.