Condition critical for Red Sox as Yankees come to town

Despite several banged-up players and a few slumping All-Stars, the Yankees appear primed to defend their World Series championship. The Red Sox, however, have struggled to stay near .500.

Boston, which got a fundamental makeover this past offseason with an emphasis on pitching and defense, has struggled to find its identity. Its 4.79 rotation ERA ranks 21st in the majors, and its 4.68 team ERA ranks 23rd. Defensively, the Red Sox are 15th with a .982 fielding percentage. Last season, Boston committed 18 errors through May 6 (in 28 games); this season, it has 20 errors in 29 games.

The Red Sox have recovered from a 4-9 start, but given the hole they dug in a division that features the teams with the majors’ best two records, hovering around .500 won’t cut it.

Why this weekend’s series against New York is vital to Boston:

Are things turning around for Big Papi's bat?
Are things turning around for Big Papi’s bat?

Division dominance: The Rays (21-7) and Yankees (19-8) have been superb, and the Red Sox are a combined 1-6 against the AL East front-runners. Even more alarming, all seven of those games have come at Fenway Park.

Tampa Bay’s biggest weakness last season is now a strength. The Rays went 32-49 on the road in 2009, but they are 12-1 away from Tropicana Field this season. They have scored the most runs in the majors, and their starters’ 2.51 ERA and 17 wins are both best in the majors.

Despite slow starts from Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Nick Johnson, the Yankees are second in the AL in runs scored and first in the majors in OPS. Their starting pitchers not named Javier Vazquez are 15-1 with a 2.14 ERA, and they have survived the past week without Mariano Rivera.

The Red Sox can’t expect the Rays and Yankees to suddenly come back to the pack, so they must get some head-to-head wins.

Fenway factor: Boston’s 56 home wins last season were second to the Yankees’ 57. But the home-field advantage has been lacking this season. The Red Sox are just 9-8 at Fenway Park even after their four-game sweep of the Angels this week.

Boston is averaging 5.35 runs at home, compared to 4.92 on the road, but its 17- and 11-run outputs against the Angels this week skewed those numbers a bit. Overall, the Red Sox’s .275 batting average at home is identical to its road mark.

From 2000-09, only three teams in the major had more home wins than the Red Sox, and that is the home-field advantage they must recapture. Especially with a challenging road schedule ahead. By the end of May, Boston must play the Tigers, Yankees, Phillies and Rays at their parks. All of those team have winning records.

Creating confidence: The Red Sox (15-14) are above .500 for the first time since their season-opening win over the Yankees — a game they trailed 5-1 at one point. The team is riding a season-best four-game winning streak, and there are signs that things are beginning to turn.

The starting pitching, a major factor in the team’s slow start, finally is stabilizing. After going 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA in his first three starts, Jon Lester is 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA in his past two outings. Josh Beckett followed two brutal starts with seven innings of two-run ball in his most recent outing. And any concerns about John Lackey have been put to rest (2-0, 2.57 ERA in his past three starts). Clay Buchholz (2.97 ERA) has been the ace, leaving Daisuke Matsuzaka as the biggest lingering concern. And Dice-K won’t pitch this weekend.

Offensively, David Ortiz’s bat is thawing. After hitting .143 with a homer and four RBIs in April, Big Papi has a .286-3-3 line in May. And he isn’t the only Red Sox hitter showing signs of life. J.D. Drew (.435-1-6) and Victor Martinez (.304-1-7) both are streaking in the right direction this month. And Adrian Beltre, who has hit for a high average since the start of the season, hit his first two homers this week.

A big weekend would create even more momentum, but losing two of three (or worse) to the Yankees would be devastating.

Chris Bahr is a senior editor for Sporting News. E-mail him at cbahr@sportingnews.com.

Sponsored link: Red Sox tickets available

Despite several banged-up players and a few slumping All-Stars, the Yankees appear primed to defend their World Series championship. The Red Sox, however, have struggled to stay near .500.

Boston, which got a fundamental makeover this past offseason with an emphasis on pitching and defense, has struggled to find its identity. Its 4.79 rotation ERA ranks 21st in the majors, and its 4.68 team ERA ranks 23rd. Defensively, the Red Sox are 15th with a .982 fielding percentage. Last season, Boston committed 18 errors through May 6 (in 28 games); this season, it has 20 errors in 29 games.

The Red Sox have recovered from a 4-9 start, but given the hole they dug in a division that features the teams with the majors’ best two records, hovering around .500 won’t cut it.

Why this weekend’s series against New York is vital to Boston:

Are things turning around for Big Papi's bat?
Are things turning around for Big Papi’s bat?

Division dominance: The Rays (21-7) and Yankees (19-8) have been superb, and the Red Sox are a combined 1-6 against the AL East front-runners. Even more alarming, all seven of those games have come at Fenway Park.

Tampa Bay’s biggest weakness last season is now a strength. The Rays went 32-49 on the road in 2009, but they are 12-1 away from Tropicana Field this season. They have scored the most runs in the majors, and their starters’ 2.51 ERA and 17 wins are both best in the majors.

Despite slow starts from Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Nick Johnson, the Yankees are second in the AL in runs scored and first in the majors in OPS. Their starting pitchers not named Javier Vazquez are 15-1 with a 2.14 ERA, and they have survived the past week without Mariano Rivera.

The Red Sox can’t expect the Rays and Yankees to suddenly come back to the pack, so they must get some head-to-head wins.

Fenway factor: Boston’s 56 home wins last season were second to the Yankees’ 57. But the home-field advantage has been lacking this season. The Red Sox are just 9-8 at Fenway Park even after their four-game sweep of the Angels this week.

Boston is averaging 5.35 runs at home, compared to 4.92 on the road, but its 17- and 11-run outputs against the Angels this week skewed those numbers a bit. Overall, the Red Sox’s .275 batting average at home is identical to its road mark.

From 2000-09, only three teams in the major had more home wins than the Red Sox, and that is the home-field advantage they must recapture. Especially with a challenging road schedule ahead. By the end of May, Boston must play the Tigers, Yankees, Phillies and Rays at their parks. All of those team have winning records.

Creating confidence: The Red Sox (15-14) are above .500 for the first time since their season-opening win over the Yankees — a game they trailed 5-1 at one point. The team is riding a season-best four-game winning streak, and there are signs that things are beginning to turn.

The starting pitching, a major factor in the team’s slow start, finally is stabilizing. After going 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA in his first three starts, Jon Lester is 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA in his past two outings. Josh Beckett followed two brutal starts with seven innings of two-run ball in his most recent outing. And any concerns about John Lackey have been put to rest (2-0, 2.57 ERA in his past three starts). Clay Buchholz (2.97 ERA) has been the ace, leaving Daisuke Matsuzaka as the biggest lingering concern. And Dice-K won’t pitch this weekend.

Offensively, David Ortiz’s bat is thawing. After hitting .143 with a homer and four RBIs in April, Big Papi has a .286-3-3 line in May. And he isn’t the only Red Sox hitter showing signs of life. J.D. Drew (.435-1-6) and Victor Martinez (.304-1-7) both are streaking in the right direction this month. And Adrian Beltre, who has hit for a high average since the start of the season, hit his first two homers this week.

A big weekend would create even more momentum, but losing two of three (or worse) to the Yankees would be devastating.

Chris Bahr is a senior editor for Sporting News. E-mail him at cbahr@sportingnews.com.

Sponsored link: Red Sox tickets available

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