Undoubtedly, this is a huge series for the Red Sox, who need to take advantage of great pitching, solid hitting, and momentum sweeping Toronto in order to take down their hated rivals.
There are some intriguing pitching matchups in this three-game series. Let's take a look at who will be pitching.
Game 1: Andy Pettitte-NYY vs. Brad Penny-BOS
At the old age of 37, Andy Pettitte is proving he can still be a serviceable starter for the New York Yankees. With a 9-6 record and a 4.09 ERA, he is certainly keeping the Yankees in most of their games.
The Red Sox will counter with Brad Penny, who has shown he is purely an innings-eater at this point in his career. His 5.22 ERA and 1.50 WHIP are not good numbers, and he is barely maintaining a 2/1 K/BB ratio.
The Verdict: New York has the advantage in this pitching matchup, with Pettitte purely on fire over his past six starts. Despite a 1-1 record in the past month, Pettitte has posted a 2.23 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, with a 35/8 K/BB ratio.
The Key For Boston: The Red Sox must get out quickly in this matchup with the bats. In five out of the last six starts for Pettitte, he has thrown more than 101 pitches. If the Red Sox can remain patient at the plate and take plenty of pitches, they could sneak away with a win.
Game 2: AJ Burnett-NYY vs. Junichi Tazawa-BOS
A.J. Burnett's surface stats sure look attractive from the Yankees' standpoint. A 10-6 record with a 3.69 ERA defines a good pitcher, doesn't it? Take a closer look.
Over the past month, Burnett has averaged 7.4 K/9, with 3.8 BB/9. His command is actually worse than Pettitte's, both on the season and in the last month. Burnett has a good amount of downside the rest of the season, and the Red Sox could exploit his weaknesses in this matchup.
Junichi Tazawa is still much of an unknown as a Red Sox player. He came in for late-inning duty on August 7th against the Yankees - talk about being thrown into the fire! Tazawa has two starts on the season: one solid against the Detroit Tigers, and the other weak at The Ballpark in Arlington against the Texas Rangers.
With only 11.2 innings pitched on the season, it is tough to project how Tazawa will throw against the Yankees. A scary stat most Red Sox fans should be aware of is his opponent's OBP: a scary .354. Needless to say, Tazawa will have to perform better than that if he wants to beat the Yankees.
The Verdict: While Burnett has to be considered the favorite pitcher here, Tazawa is not far off from being at least a comparable pitcher. Considering Tazawa is throwing at home and has the home crowd behind him, Tazawa has a better-than-average chance to throw a quality start and put the Red Sox out in front.
The Key For Boston: Tazawa's pitching. If Tazawa can put together a few quality innings (at least five good ones), the bullpen can go to work and attempt to finish the game the right way. If Tazawa implodes, the Boston bats better be extremely patient: Burnett's control is not all that great.
Game 3: CC Sabathia-NYY vs. Josh Beckett-BOS
Talk about a dream matchup. Two of the American League's elite hurlers will go to work on Sunday, creating what could be the most exciting pitching matchup of the entire regular season.
The southpaw Sabathia has been everything the New York Yankees had hoped for coming into the season. He currently holds a season record of 14-7, with a 3.58 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. Sabathia has absolutely been on fire the past month as well, throwing for a record of 5-1 with a 3.32 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. Yes, he is elite.
Josh Beckett is the ace of the Boston staff, and he is another elite hurler. Like Sabathia, Beckett has posted elite numbers to date this season, with a 14-4 record, 3.38 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. In the past month, Beckett has gone 3-0 with an incredible 3.24 ERA.
The Verdict: This is going to be a can't-miss pitching matchup. While both pitchers are elite hurlers, I have to give the edge in this one to Beckett and the Red Sox. While both teams are extremely strong at getting on base, this one is more of a toss up than anything.
The Key For Boston: The bullpen. In a game slated to be so close, the bullpen must hold up and pitch big time innings, whether the Sox are leading or not. Boston's bats are liable to catch on fire anytime, along with the Yankees', so neither team can be too comfortable with any kind of lead.
There should be plenty of solid pitching in this series: more than one would expect with two offensively-powerful teams.
Here are three keys for the Red Sox in their pursuit of the Evil Empire.
1. Jonathan Papelbon must be able to shut down hitters in big games
We all know how good Mariano Rivera is—once he enters the game, it is ridiculously difficult for bats to get going. But Papelbon has been merely above-average this year for the Sox, and he is walking a lot of batters.
Over the past three years, Papelbon has rates of 1.7, 2.1, and 1.0BB/9. This year, he's at 4.0/9. While he is still an extremely dominant pitcher, the walks could come back to haunt him.
However, if he can focus on controlling the baseball while maintaining dominance, the Red Sox will be well off, and will reap the benefits of having solid pitching at the end of their games.
2. The Red Sox have to limit the number of runners they leave on base
Over the past three games against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Red Sox left seven, nine, and seven men on base. In a series where every run will count, the Red Sox must capitalize on every single run-scoring opportunity that comes to them.
Expect Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis to be at the top of their games, batting as the first and second hitters early and often. The second-half of the order must produce as well, with Lowell, Kotchman, and even Ortiz. Poor plate decisions could end up costing the Red Sox dearly.
3. Terry Francona needs to know when to pull the plug...on his pitchers, that is
Francona has some big decisions to make with how he manages his bullpen in this series. More likely than not, Penny and Tazawa will need extensive bullpen support.
The key for Francona is using the right reliever at the right time and for the right duration. For a team that is very careful with pitch counts and how they handle their pitchers, look for Francona to make liberal switches with his relievers if he deems necessary.
Poor bullpen management in this series could really cost the Sox not only in this series, but in the upcoming Chicago White Sox series as well.
As sports fans, we should all be looking forward to one of the most exciting regular-season series of the year. Considering both teams are in the running for playoff positions, this should be a hard-fought series to the end.
What do you believe the keys are for the Red Sox are in this series?