Opening act sets storylines in motion
Red Sox remind Yanks you can't count them out at home; but are they Fenway creation?
BOSTON -- As early as the first four innings of the 2010 season and certainly after the uneven, raucous final five, the familiar warning signs, threats, harbingers and general blueprints for the summer between the Red Sox and Yankees dotted Opening Night at Fenway Park.
There was warmth and festivities. The rap rebel turned music mogul turned mainstream soda-and-headphones pitchman, Dr. Dre, took batting practice. Yankees fan LeBron James showed up and took his seat. Before throwing out the first pitch, Pedro Martinez bathed in the warmth of the Boston fans, the showman in him providing theater, while two of his former teammates, Curt Schilling and Nomar Garciaparra, settled in as broadcasters.
But it wasn't long before the main event -- the Red Sox and Yankees both opened their 110th baseball seasons -- turned into serious business and, perhaps more importantly, battle territory was marked on numerous important fronts, fronts that will be challenged all summer long.
The final score underscored what we have come to expect from these two teams. Sixteen total runs, 24 hits. The Red Sox won 9-7, the way the Red Sox seem to do at home, first by trailing and then percolating toward an inevitable explosion, reminding their opponents that the Boston Red Sox are still the most dangerous home team in baseball.
When it was done, the Red Sox strikingly victorious, Yankees ace CC Sabathia put the blame on himself. "This one is my fault. It's on me," he said, after losing a 5-1 lead and then watching the bullpen lose a 7-5 lead in an eyeblink. "My fault."
Ortiz, coming off of a .238 season in 2009 (his worst average for a year in which he played at least 100 games) went 0-for-3, unable to break free for one night of the doubts that continue to plague him at this stage of his career. Ortiz, however, was at the plate when the eventual winning run scored. Yankees reliever Damaso Marte crossed up Jorge Posada, resulting in a passed ball that sent Kevin Youkilis home and gave the Red Sox an 8-7 lead.
Cameron got into the act in his Red Sox debut, going 2-for-3 with a run scored. Youkilis, charged now with being Boston's cleanup hitter presumably for the year in a transition from the Manny Ramirez-Ortiz days, went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a triple.
"We all have faith in ourselves. We know we're a good hitting team," Youkilis said afterward. "We're a good hitting team. We showed that tonight."
The Red Sox are supposed to be about pitching, first about Beckett, and Jon Lester, John Lackey and (eventually) Daisuke Matsuzaka, and in the bullpen with Manny Delcarmen, Daniel Bard, Hideki Okajima and finally Jonathan Papelbon. The blueprint is for the Red Sox to overwhelm teams with perhaps the best collection of arms in the game.
But Beckett, expecting a huge contract extension in the very near future to keep him in Boston for the next four years, fell hard in the second inning, recording the first two outs before giving up back-to-back home runs to Jorge Posada and newcomer Curtis Granderson, and then three more runs in the fourth. Beckett was done for the night in just 4 2/3 innings and the Yankees led 5-1 with ace CC Sabathia on the mound.
For a time, it appeared that the Yankees, finally over the collapse of 2004, would ease into the evening and squeeze the life out of the Red Sox. Having conquered the psychological game of doubt that erased the Yankees' air of invincibility since Boston's World Series win six years ago, the Red Sox seemed less of a threat.
Before the game, the Yankees took the field with historical, practiced swagger, the swagger of the years, and of being defending champions, and from correcting the dismal way they started the season against Boston last season.
But they are not the same team, either, and as the Red Sox transition, so too must the Yankees adapt to a different look. It is a team whose outfield -- Granderson, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner -- hit in the seven through nine spots, respectively. World Series MVP Hideki Matsui is gone, as is clutch performer Johnny Damon.
In the spirit of repeating, even manager Joe Girardi changed his number from 27 (in honor of the 27th championship the franchise sought upon his hire) to 28 (naturally the goal for 2010). If his number swap becomes a rallying cry, Girardi is in good shape for a dynasty -- for the Yankees, kings of the retired numbers as they are, do not have a number retired between 28 and 31. The next belongs to Elston Howard, who wore 32.
Meanwhile, as the Red Sox transition from their frightening, high-soaring days -- when Damon, Ramirez and Ortiz clicked at a Hall of Fame clip -- into a more balanced, less consistently potent offensive team led by Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Victor Martinez, scoring big runs supposedly is no longer a given.
The Red Sox were third in the league in runs scored last year with 872, which had players and team executives annoyed by concerns about low production this year, but it is no myth. The difference lies away from Fenway Park, where the Red Sox were ninth in both runs and RBIs, 10th in OPS, 12th in slugging and 17th in batting average last season. All of which explains why the Red Sox were 39-42 on the road last season and why the fear factor toward this team has so considerably lessened.
At home, however, the Red Sox were as dangerous as ever last year, a traditional Fenway creation in the same mold as so many historical Red Sox teams, and on Opening Night, the Red Sox followed the script exactly -- and when the pregame pyrotechnics cooled, the atmosphere of the game underscored that point.
Girardi missed the warning signs that the Red Sox were coming alive. In the fifth, Sabathia, Beckett-like, recorded the first two outs of the inning but then gave up three straight hits, the third an RBI single to No. 9 hitter Marco Scutaro that cut the lead to 5-2. Sabathia had gone deep in the count to each hitter in the inning and neared 100 pitches, warning signs all in his first regular-season start.
Girardi left Sabathia in to pitch the fateful sixth, when the Red Sox torched him and Yankees reliever David Robertson to tie the score 5-5. After the Yankees scored two in the top of the seventh to go ahead 7-5, Boston's comeback reached a crescendo with Pedroia's two-run homer in the seventh off Chan Ho Park and culminated with Pedroia's insurance single in the eighth that scored Cameron.
"I knew that was going to be the first question," Francona said about his team's offensive eruption. "That was a tough game to win. I thought we were very resilient tonight. We get down, then tie it up, then get back down quick, but we did some very good things offensively. We kept at them and put pressure on them."
It remains to be seen what the Red Sox will do on the road this season -- if they will be exposed as they were last year as a dominant collection of home-team hitters and will not be able to stay with a balanced New York team that scores runs at home and abroad and can spend the year fortified by a championship, or if they will rediscover their scary penchant to come back on any team, anywhere.
But as opening acts go, the Red Sox played with a familiar fervor, one particular to this ballpark, one that opposing teams have feared for years.
"We've played a lot of these here," said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, whose two hits brought him 251 hits away from the inexorable 3,000. "It's like no lead is ever safe."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42
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