In the first series of the 2021 season between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, the Red Sox went into Yankee Stadium and swept their foe in the Bronx for the first time since 2011, including a wild, 6-5 victory in 10 innings on Sunday.
Some takeaways from the series:
• If you think this rivalry lacks some of the off-the-chart intensity it used to have, consider what longtime Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner said at the outset of the series -- the teams' first meeting since manager Alex Cora returned to the Red Sox after serving a suspension in 2020 for his involvement in the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal.
"Having him in the dugout obviously makes me want to beat them," Gardner said. "We don't like those guys; they don't like us. It will be interesting for them to come to town."
OK, Gardner apparently said this with a smile and later said he was "half-joking" about Cora, but the Red Sox noticed his comments.
Note what Xander Bogaerts told SportsCenter's Steve Levy after completing the sweep: "Obviously, Gardner said a couple of words before the series started. It kind of got us fueled up a little more."
The Red Sox had lost 11 straight games at Yankee Stadium, and New York went 9-1 against them in 2020, so it's understandable why Bogaerts would call Sunday's win "the most fun game in a long time."
Bogaerts delivered the go-ahead run in the eighth with a sacrifice fly and the winning runs with a two-run single off Luis Cessa in the 10th inning, and he is now hitting .318/.376/.536 with 36 RBIs. He has kind of flown under the radar -- as always seems to be the case -- but he should be headed to his third All-Star Game.
• In a sense, the series offered confirmation of what we've seen so far this season: The Red Sox are better than expected, and the Yankees are nowhere near as good as expected. Nothing in these three games changed that view. It was a big week for the Yankees, with seven games against the Tampa Bay Rays and the Red Sox, and New York laid an egg, going 2-5.
What's especially disappointing is that the Yankees won two of the first three against the Rays and had Gerrit Cole starting the fourth game of that series. But Cole allowed five runs in five innings in a 9-2 loss, and then the Red Sox cleaned up.
"An awful week for us," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "We've got to get right; we've got to get better.
"We've got to find a way to start scratching out some W's."
The Yankees just haven't scored runs, which is maybe the biggest teamwide development of the season. The Yankees are 27th in the majors in runs per game -- ahead of only the New York Mets, Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates, which sounds almost impossible for a team that ranked fourth in 2020, first in 2019, second in 2018 and second in 2017.
It's not just because of injuries, as Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have actually been pretty healthy, with Judge playing in 57 of 60 games and Stanton in 41. More worrisome, it doesn't feel like a scary lineup that is just waiting to kick into gear, not with DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres basically turning into singles hitters; Gardner looking over the hill at 37; Clint Frazier and Rougned Odor hitting under .200; and somebody named Chris Gittens hitting sixth on Sunday. It's not as simple as just getting Luke Voit healthy. There are real problems here. The Yankees have hit .215 and averaged 2.6 runs per game over a 3-10 stretch.
"No, I'm not concerned at all," New York catcher Gary Sanchez said after Sunday's loss. "We're a really good team, and I believe in my teammates, I believe in the talent that we have.
"I'm confident that we're definitely going get over this hump here and will start playing the baseball we want."
• Alex Rodriguez made a good point about the New York lineup during the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast, pointing out that the Yankees have been synonymous with left-handed power hitters for decades -- really, going all the way back to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The three versions of Yankee Stadium have all featured the short porch in right field, so it has been a long-standing organizational philosophy to load up on left-handed hitters. The lineup Sunday night, however, featured eight right-handed batters and the struggling Gardner hitting ninth against Boston righty starter Garrett Richards.
Entering Sunday, the Yankees hit with the platoon advantage 44.6% of the time, the second-lowest percentage in the majors, with only the Toronto Blue Jays below them. This wasn't an issue in 2019, when the Yankees hit with the platoon advantage just 42.9% of the time, yet hit 306 home runs and led the majors in runs scored. But looking back at some Yankees teams of the past, we see the 2009 World Series champions had the platoon advantage 70.3% of the time, best in the majors. The great 1998 team had the advantage in 56.4% of its plate appearances. That 2019 team struggled to score runs in the American League Championship Series against Houston -- in part because the Astros were loaded up with right-handed pitching. The lack of lefty power feels like part of New York's problem.
• One thing that stood out in the series was the performance of the bullpens in the three games. The Yankees are third in the majors in bullpen ERA, so overall, the group has been effective; but Boston's Marwin Gonzalez twice burned Lucas Luetge, with a two-run double on Friday and then a game-tying two-run home run on Sunday. Luetge has been outstanding, but he is a 34-year-old lefty who hadn't pitched in the majors since 2015 and has a .785 career OPS allowed against right-handed batters. Boone went with the hot hand, but it didn't work.
Chad Green lost Saturday's game when he allowed four runs in the eighth inning as the Red Sox broke open a 3-3 game. All four runs came with two outs on doubles from Enrique Hernandez and Christian Vazquez and then a Bobby Dalbec home run. Green has a 3.14 ERA, but he is now 0-4.
Then, after Boone used Aroldis Chapman down 4-3 in the ninth on Sunday -- I didn't have a problem with that, as you want to keep the game close, and Chapman hadn't pitched in the first two games -- he had to use Cessa in the 10th, and that didn't work, either. Again, Cessa has been decent enough, but he is mostly a low-leverage guy. I think this weekend showed how much the Yankees miss Zack Britton.
• Meanwhile, Matt Barnes got saves on Friday and Saturday, striking all four batters he faced. He has been crushing it as the Red Sox's closer, with 47 strikeouts and just seven walks in 26⅓ innings, allowing a .136 average. Only Chapman has a higher strikeout percentage among pitchers with at least 20 innings. The key for Barnes has been throwing more strikes, which has led to more pitcher's counts (47.2% of his pitches, as compared to just 12.9% in a hitter's count; much better than his career rates of 38.1% and 22.0% entering 2021).
Barnes faced just one batter on Saturday, but it still was a mild surprise when Cora brought Barnes on for a third straight game to try to close out a 4-3 lead on Sunday. Managers just don't use relievers three days in a row if they can avoid it, but if there was ever a game to do it, it's with a one-run lead against a division rival. Plus, Barnes hadn't pitched in five days before throwing 17 pitches on Friday, so this usage was defensible, even if Barnes has historically pitched worse when going with no days of rest (5.37 career ERA versus an overall ERA of 3.97).
Sure enough, Judge walked with one out and Torres doubled him home with a line drive into the left-field corner -- with Alex Verdugo's bobble making it easy to send Judge home with the tying run. Barnes got a gift to escape the inning when umpire Gabe Morales rung up Odor on a 3-2 curveball that was outside -- a call that led to Yankees coaches Phil Nevin and Carlos Mendoza getting ejected.
Some of the postgame chatter centered on why Boone wasn't ejected alongside his coaches. You can feel Yankees fans starting to turn a little bit on their manager. (Although Boone was just ejected from a game a few days ago, so it's not like he won't get fired up or defend his players.)
Anyway, Boston's no-name bullpen includes Hirokazu Sawamura, Josh Taylor and Phillips Valdez, who got the save on Sunday. Two other key members are ex-Yankees: Adam Ottavino, who has a 2.78 ERA and two saves, and rookie Garrett Whitlock. Whitlock was a good prospect as a starter coming through the Yankees system, but he had Tommy John surgery in 2019. The Yankees left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, but the gambit failed as the Red Sox took a flyer on Whitlock. He has a 1.63 ERA in 27⅔ innings, often pitching multiple innings, including getting five outs on Saturday.
• Verdugo is doing his best to make the Mookie Betts trade look a lot less controversial than it did when it occurred. Verdugo's first-inning home run off Domingo German was his eighth, and he is hitting .288/.348/.463. Betts is hitting .258/.372/.438 with five home runs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
OK, there is a lot of baseball to be played before we declare Verdugo in the same universe as Betts, but Verdugo is going to be a solid contributor in front of Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers in the Boston lineup. Verdugo is one of the better contact hitters in the league (10th-lowest strikeout rate), he has started at least nine games at all three outfield positions and he has hit well in high-leverage situations. Remember, this is a player with fewer than 1,000 plate appearances in the majors, so there is still possible improvement to come, especially if he learns to lift the ball a little more.
• Much has been made of the Yankees' baserunning woes, and it's warranted. They entered the day leading the majors with 28 outs on the bases, including 12 at home plate. You might chalk this up to them being extra aggressive. Nope. They also rank last in the majors in percentage of extra bases taken, such as going first to third or second to home on a single. They're next to last in stolen bases. They also lead the majors in double plays grounded into, including three more on Sunday.
This is about as bad a team on the bases as you will ever see, with little team speed and a slew of boneheaded plays tossed in. That's one reason the Yankees are last in the majors in percentage of runners who get on base and come around to score. The Yankees are 14th in the majors in on-base percentage but 27th in runs per game.