Tuesday, June 29, 2004

April in past; June here

A few things have changed since the last time ...

By Ronald Blum
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - The Red Sox opened the New York Yankees' eyes in April. "A-Rod was trying so hard, he couldn't see," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

Boston won six of its first seven games against New York for the first time since 1913 - when the Red Sox were the defending World Series champions.

When the Red Sox left Yankee Stadium April 25 following a three-game sweep, Boston was 12-6 and New York was 8-11, 4 1/2 games out of first place in the AL East.

Since then, the traditional order has been restored. Boston returns tonight for a three-game series trailing the defending AL champions by 5 1/2 games, closer to third-place Tampa Bay than to the division-leading Yankees.

"We have to go down there, put the pressure on them and win some of those games," said Boston's David Ortiz, who leads the AL with 72 RBI.

New York has gone 39-15 since then, and its 47-26 record is the best in the major leagues. Following a 15-6 start, the Red Sox have gone 27-26.

"It falls on these guys to get it done, and we think they will," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said. "They are finding ways to win games and we're not."

While Boston leads the league with a 3.92 ERA, the back end of its rotation has stumbled - the Red Sox are 20-22 when Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling don't start.

New York's rotation has been slowed by injuries to Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina, and inconsistent starts by Jose Contreras and Jon Lieber. And while Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams have recovered from slow starts, Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi are playing with injuries, and Jorge Posada has just one home run since April 28.

And although the Yankees lead the major leagues with 112 home runs, they've had difficulty manufacturing runs from base hits - their .262 batting average is fifth from the bottom in the AL.

"It's going to be a crazy week," Torre said.

During the four-game series at Fenway Park, Rodriguez was repeatedly taunted. Nearly traded to Boston by Texas during the offseason before he was dealt to the Yankees, the AL MVP went hitless in his first 16 at-bats before a ninth-inning single in the finale. By the end of the series at Yankee Stadium the following weekend, Jeter was hitless in 25 at-bats, a career high.

But then, New York swept a three-game series from Oakland, which started Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.

"I was a little bit excited, trying to do too much. That was all of April," Rodriguez said. "It united us. There was a lot of new faces to get used to. From that point on, I think the team really got a sense of confidence and we started moving in the right direction."

Rodriguez is batting .288 now and has 19 homers, matching Ortiz and one shy of Boston's Manny Ramirez, the AL leader. Jeter has raised his average from .189 on May 26 to .266.

"We were healthier then than we are now, and we're still playing better now," Torre said. "We just didn't do very well, physically and emotionally, I don't think. Everybody tried to do the job themselves individually. We certainly didn't handle the pressure of the series very well.

"I think we sort of came together through that whole thing. When you're in that situation, you're not doing very well, you really look for support, and I think we found it in the clubhouse with each other."

New York catches a break because Schilling pitched Sunday and won't start in the series. Javier Vazquez (8-5) is to pitch today against Derek Lowe (6-6), followed by Lieber (5-5) on Wednesday against Tim Wakefield (4-5). Rookie Brad Halsey (1-1) will be opposed Thursday by Martinez (8-3).

Boston played the April games without shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and outfielder Trot Nixon, both sidelined by injuries but now back in the lineup and struggling to regain their form.

Red Sox rookie third baseman Kevin Youkilis, a Sycamore High product, brought up from the minors in mid-May, is looking forward to the games.

"I've been to New York a couple of times but never played in Yankee Stadium," he said last weekend in Boston. "I know it'll be pretty crazy. I've just heard it's wild. The whole three games are usually nonstop yelling and mayhem in the bleachers."

Still, Jeter isn't attaching too much importance the series.

"You always have to keep it in perspective," he said. "It's a long year."

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