05/06/09 1:55 AM ET
Red Sox finding ways to iron out flaws
Depth and balance make up for underperforming stars
Red Sox, 5 games. Yankees, 0 games.
That's the 2009 season series so far in baseball's biggest rivalry. It was one thing for the Red Sox to sweep three games in Boston during April's final weekend. But it was another for the Red Sox to march into the brand-new Yankee Stadium and take two more. This was a short series, but still one that ended in a unanimous decision. There is nothing like undermining mystique before it can even get started.
Tuesday night's series finale, a 7-3 Red Sox victory, offered at least a portion of additional reassurance for the citizens of Red Sox Nation. For Red Sox fans who needed something to worry about without appearing to be obsessive, there has been some legitimate concern regarding one prominent pitcher and one lineup mainstay.
You aren't likely to have all 25 members of the roster working at maximum efficiency this early in the season, but when the two players who have been far off form are Josh Beckett and David Ortiz, questions and eyebrows will be raised.
Beckett came in with an ERA of 7.22. Three of his past four starts had not been close to his high standards. But here, he was good enough to beat the Yankees and qualify for the "quality start" designation, baseball's version of "minimum daily requirement."
This was not vintage Beckett, not with 10 hits allowed in six-plus innings, but he never let this one get away from him.
"At crunch time, he made pitches," catcher Jason Varitek said.
The Red Sox had to struggle for this one, but in this rivalry, nothing good is achieved with ease. Boston scored four runs before recording an out, the bulk of the damage being done by Jason Bay's three-run homer. But then Yankees starter Joba Chamberlain settled in and displayed some of the immense potential he possesses. After the first inning, 12 of the next 14 outs Chamberlain recorded were strikeouts. It is true that the 23-year-old right-hander left the game after 5 2/3 innings, but his 12 strikeouts were a career high.
The Red Sox were left to hang on. Beckett and the Boston bullpen were in charge of this activity. Lefty Hideki Okajima got six outs without allowing anything in the seventh and eighth. Since Jonathan Papelbon had been extended in a five-out save on Monday night, Takashi Saito, who has done this kind of work before with considerable success, pitched the ninth inning, also with no damage.
The other half of Boston's unanswered question is Ortiz, the designated hitter who remains one of the most imposing run producers of this generation. In 102 at-bats this season, though, he has no home runs -- a previously unthinkable result. Ortiz showed hints of coming back into form here, pulling two doubles on Monday night and delivering a solid, run-scoring single on Tuesday night. This is not a career in which singles are much celebrated, though.
But here is the flip side for the Red Sox: They have moved to 17-10, including 5-0 against the Yankees, without Beckett pitching consistently near the top of his form and with Ortiz delivering nothing resembling his usual production. So how bad can things be for the Sox? Not particularly bad at all, as it turns out.
The early returns against the Yanks can be celebrated or played down.
"It's definitely good -- any time -- to beat the Yankees," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said.
"For us, it's a matter of winning games no matter who we're playing," said Varitek, who pointed out that between these two sets of wonderful results against the Yankees, the Red Sox had dropped three out of four to the Rays in St. Petersburg.
On the other side, were there factors that excused the Yankees' performance in these five games? It is true that Alex Rodriguez has not yet played this season while rehabbing from right hip surgery. There is no question that his talents are missed, but when he returns to the New York lineup, this will not be an unmixed blessing. He will be asked a whole new generation of steroid questions, based on Selena Roberts' new book. The Yankees will have a better lineup with A-Rod in it, but they will not have a more uncluttered existence.
Yankees catcher Jorge Posada went on the disabled list on Tuesday with a strained right hamstring, but when Terry Francona was asked about facing a lineup without Posada, the Red Sox's manager responded:
"You know what? We don't have Youk tonight."
The reference was to cleanup hitter Kevin Youkilis, who sat out Tuesday's game because of persistent pain in his left side. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury departed this game in the fourth inning with a tight right hamstring. The weather in the Bronx the past two nights -- cold and damp, followed by chilly and wet -- essentially made tight hamstrings a basic part of the human condition.
"I think Jason Bay was the only guy who thought it was a nice night out there," Francona said, making an apparent reference to Bay's Canadian origins, although the more populated regions of Bay's home province -- British Columbia -- have a climate more moderate than the one found in American Northeast, and certainly the one found in the Northeast the past two nights.
The Red Sox have not been without injuries. Two shortstops -- Julio Lugo and Jed Lowrie -- have missed considerable time. Daisuke Matsuzaka, an 18-game winner last season, has been out since mid-April. The 162-game season is not only a test of talent -- it is a test of organizational depth. The Red Sox appear to have as much pitching depth as any club in the Majors. In fact, they may be the leaders in this area.
But it is still early for definitive judgments. Based on the first five games of this season series -- a small sample size but all on one side of the argument -- the Red Sox, when compared to the Yankees, have the overall pitching advantage. Proving that over six months is another issue, but a 5-0 start against the Yankees clearly demonstrates the possibilities for this season.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.