The Yankees and Red Sox continue their eternal dance at Yankee Stadium this weekend in a series that would seem to have very little riding on it. Sure, fans always get a little extra amped up by a chance to see their rivals get pounded, but barring total collapse by the Yankees over the final nine games the only thing really worth rooting for is no injuries during these final tune-ups for postseason.
So what's the point in watching if wins and losses mean less in these games than they normally do? The clearest reason is because these games could very well be a precursor to the American League Championship Series. The Yankees have the best record in the American League and the Red Sox have cleared up the problems that had them reeling around midseason which make the chance that they'll be seeing each other again something more than a longshot. As such, there are three areas worth special attention.
1. Joba The What? - Joba Chamberlain's every move is analyzed with the care usually reserved for things like the Zapruder film, but his start on Friday night will be scrutinized even more closely than the ones that have gone before. Chad Gaudin hasn't given much indication that the Yankees have any choice but to give him the ball if they get to the ALCS, so it would be awfully nice to see him throw well against the Sox. Even so, the Yankees made it clear this week that it's not a question of rules, stuff or role anymore, it's simply a question of whether or not Chamberlain can get the job done. That makes Friday night's game worth watching.
2. Rolling the Dice-K - The closest thing the Red Sox have to Chamberlain is the enigmatic Daisuke Matsuzaka. He's been on the disabled list for most of the season and pitched poorly when he was in the lineup early in the season. He's done better since returning to active duty this month, but a Yankee massacre on Saturday would raise big questions about his fitness entering the playoffs. Conversely, if Dice-K shuts down the Yankee bats it would give the Sox a slight edge, perceived or otherwise, in the starting rotation.
3. Chinks in the Bullpen Armor - If this is a preamble, it stands to reason that the two teams are going to be looking to find any edge that they can get over their opponents. No better place to start than in the bullpens since that's where so many postseason games are decided. Each team has a triumverate of relievers, two lefties and a righty, tasked with getting the ball to their closers. With Hideki Okajima and Billy Wagner, the Sox have an edge in experience over the Yankee lefties Damaso Marte, even with his 2005 World Series ring, and Phil Coke. If any of them get beaten by a lefty bat this weekend it will be bad, but the luxury of two southpaws is that a mess by one is mitigated by the existence of the other.
It is the righties, then, where a chink may be found. Daniel Bard and Phil Hughes have taken on the bridge role for their respective squads, which makes them a crucial bridge to Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, respectively. Each is young, relatively untested in big spots and we therefore can't know how blowing a rivalry game in late September might affect them in a month's time. A meltdown this weekend will fuel story after story and expose a potentially fatal flaw just before the games start to count for more than bragging rights.