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Thursday, May 23
 
Red Sox-Yankees rivalry reaching great heights

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

When they met in April, it was thought to be too early in the season. The Red Sox and Yankees had barely unpacked from spring training when they played four games in Fenway Park from April 12-15.

Six weeks later, nothing has changed and everything has changed. The Red Sox have played far better than anyone had forecast. The Yankees have been their relentless selves.

Pedro Martinez
Pedro Martinez has allowed a combined two runs over his last two starts, both wins over the Mariners.
The Red Sox are missing their best hitter. The Yankees are missing, at least temporarily, 60 percent of their starting rotation.

One measly game separates the two teams in the American League standings. Their rivalry separates them from all others in sports.

Here's a look at some of the subplots as another chapter of Red Sox-Yankee lore begins.

Is that all there is?
The Red Sox have it all -- the best winning percentage in the game, the best road record in the game, the top team batting average, the lowest staff ERA. All, that is, except much of a lead over the Yankees.

For all the Red Sox have accomplished, they have not managed to put much distance between themselves and the Yankees.

Think of it: Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek have all rebounded from crushing injuries a year ago. Derek Lowe has emerged as a front-line starter in his first year in the rotation. Shea Hillenbrand may be one of the game's most improved players. The Big Three of Martinez, Lowe and John Burkett are an almost unfathomable 18-1 combined. Closer Ugueth Urbina, a concern in the first few weeks, has rebounded to record 14 of 15 save opportunities.

Even speed, always in short supply around the Red Sox, is now an occasional weapon. Thanks mostly to newcomer Johnny Damon, the Red Sox have stolen 24 bases, more than half the team's total of 46 last year even though only a little more than a quarter of the season has been played.

Defense, a foreign concept at times last year, has been significantly upgraded, most obviously at second base where Rey Sanchez has played to a Gold Glove level.

And still, the Red Sox lead is just a game.

That's got to be more than a little demoralizing. It's as if the Red Sox are running a marathon. Using their splits, they can see they are on a record pace. The wind is at their back. The conditions are nearly perfect. But they can't shake the Yankees, who are stubbornly, methodically clinging right behind.

"You're never going to have an 11-game lead on the Yankees,'' said Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon. "They're the team to beat in the American League. It's been like that for some time now.''

Fair trade
Each team is looking to make some in-season improvements. Each is hunting around for outfield help, which could pit the clubs opposite one another in the trade market, as well as the AL East.

The Red Sox, concerned about the long-term affect Manny Ramirez's absence will have in their lineup -- they've been shut out twice since he went on the DL after not being blanked once with him -- are looking for an outfield bat.

Brady Anderson, who would be offered a spot to play at Triple-A, is a possibility. A better option is Texas' Gabe Kapler.

The Yankees, meanwhile, are coveting Cliff Floyd while mindful of the trio of Toronto outfielders being made available -- Shannon Stewart, Jose Cruz. Jr. and Raul Mondesi.

The irony is that perhaps both teams should be concentrating their effort on landing more pitching. Andy Pettitte is on a rehab assignments, and it's got to trouble the Yankees some that this is the second straight year in which he's battled elbow problems. Health and age are also concerns with David Wells and Orlando Hernandez.

Boston's starting pitching has been a revelation. But Darren Oliver is their lone lefty, and he's lost his last three decisions, and there's no certainty that Dustin Hermanson (groin) will contribute any time soon.

Besides, the Red Sox probably have enough sock to withstand the next month without Ramirez. The Yankees, leading the majors in home runs, can certainly survive without much run production from the platoon of John Vander Wal and Shane Spencer.

Sophomore sensations
Boston's Shea Hillenbrand and New York's Alfonso Soriano are enjoying monster seasons.

Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano leads the majors with 67 hits.
Hillenbrand has become far more selective at the plate, making himself a dangerous hitter. He's third on the club in RBI and helped launch them on their great start by being their most productive and clutch hitter over the first three weeks.

Twice this season, he's built 12-game hitting streaks, a measure of his consistency. No less an authority on hitting than Mariners manager Lou Piniella last weekend judged Hillenbrand to be the third-best right-handed hitter in the league and perhaps the player who's shown the most improvement ever from one season to the next.

Last winter, then-Red Sox GM Dan Duquette issued a press release that compared the rookie seasons of the two players. Then, the notion that Hillenbrand was anywhere near Soriano was laughable. Not anymore.

Soriano, too, has improved. Like Hillenbrand, he's more patient at the plate, without losing his trademark aggressiveness.

His combination of speed and power suggest that his ceiling is nearly limitless.

"The way he's playing right now,'' said teammate Rondell White recently, "he might be the best player in the game.''

Good as they are, Soriano and Hillenbrand aren't being asked to carry their respective teams. The Red Sox have Garciaparra and Ramirez to do that. The Yankees, meanwhile, have Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Jason Giambi.

But with little more than a full season worth of experience, Hillenbrand and Soriano have already made plenty of impact.

Welcome wagon
The Yankees won the American League pennant last year and came within an out of winning their fourth straight World Series. The Red Sox were an utter embarrassment with their petulance, indifference and finger-pointing. While the Yankees were checking their egos at the door, the Red Sox were checking their watches to see how much more of the season -- and themselves -- they would have to tolerate.

Both teams made roster overhauls. Age and free agency forced the Yanks to get new starters at first base, third base, DH, left field and right field, a turnover unprecedented for them in the Joe Torre Era.

If there were concerns as to how well the newcomers would assimilate, they're now gone. The Yankees' clubhouse is as single-minded and focused as ever, and the results on the field speak for themselves.

The Red Sox didn't so much make moves; they fumigated. Gone were clubhouse malcontents like Troy O'Leary, Mike Lansing and Carl Everett. In their place are solid baseball citizens like Johnny Damon, Tony Clark and Carlos Baerga.

The biggest changes for the Sox are in the rotation, where John Burkett and Darren Oliver are new arrivals and Derek Lowe is a transplant. Oliver has been inconsistent, but Burkett is unbeaten -- the team hasn't lost any of his six starts -- and Lowe has been perhaps the best starter in the American League.

But the biggest difference is in chemistry, which the Sox failed miserably at last season. Now, the team is united, confident and fun-loving -- in short, nothing like it was a year ago, which is why this race looks so appealing and offers hope for the best Red Sox-Yankees summer in recent memory.

Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.







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