Second half starts with renewed rivalry
BOSTON — The uniforms will be familiar when baseball’s biggest rivalry resumes tonight. Some players inside them won’t be.
Chien-Ming Wang, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera will be wearing Yankees road jerseys. Chad Bradford, Alex Cora and Adam Stern will be sporting Red Sox home outfits.
Both teams have new faces in a strange season. New York plummeted before resurfacing in the AL East race, and Boston leads the division with a struggling bullpen and without Curt Schilling, who was activated Wednesday after going on the disabled list April 29.
One thing is unchanged: New York vs. Boston means energy, entertainment and fireworks like last season’s brawl between Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez, and this year’s confrontation between Gary Sheffield and a Fenway Park fan.
“We’re the Harlem Globetrotters,” Boston’s Johnny Damon said. “We’re the traveling baseball team that everybody comes and admires. We’re like zoo animals. People stop and stare and they can’t believe what they actually see when the Red Sox are walking down the street.”
There’s Damon’s long hair and .343 batting average, Manny Ramirez’s dreadlocks and major-league high 80 RBI and David Ortiz’s smile and 24 homers.
“We’re in a good position to come back strong when we open against the Yankees,” first baseman Kevin Millar said.
The Red Sox closed very well against them last year by winning four straight after dropping the first three games of the AL championship series. Then they swept St. Louis for their first World Series championship in 86 years.
They know it won’t be easy getting back there, let alone making the playoffs.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight with there or four teams. It’s still going to be that way,” Red Sox right fielder Trot Nixon said. “The most pivotal months are ahead of us, for each team.”
The Yankees and Red Sox open the second half of the season with a four-game series beginning tonight with Schilling, who had been sidelined with an ankle injury, expected to pitch out of the bullpen until he’s strong enough to return to the rotation. Mike Mussina opens for New York against Bronson Arroyo.
“I’m looking forward to the series,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said yesterday through his spokesman, Howard Rubenstein. “It’s against a very tough team, and I hope the Yankees do their very best.”
The teams also met to start the season in a three-game series in New York in which the Yankees won the first two before losing.
The Red Sox lead the season series, 5-4, and led the AL East at the All-Star break for the first time since 1995. Last year, they were in second place, seven games behind the Yankees.
But they lost three of four games to Baltimore in their last series, cutting their division lead to two games over Baltimore and 2.5 over New York.
The Yankees’ offense is coming around with Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield all with at least 68 RBIs, and Jason Giambi emerging from a long slump. His two-run homer helped the Yankees beat Cleveland in their last game.
“He’s worked extremely hard in a remarkable turnaround,” Steinbrenner’s statement said.
The Yankees won seven of their last eight games and, “Hopefully, it carries over. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on our pitching staff,” manager Joe Torre said.
Boston’s 49-38 record is almost the same as last year’s 48-38 at the All-Star break. Had the Yankees played better, they’d be leading the division, as usual. And that’s their goal.
“We overcame probably more than any other team to get to the position we’re in,” Sheffield said. “We’re not thrilled with being in third place, but we’re within striking distance.”
The Yankees persevered with a battered rotation. Randy Johnson has struggled and Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown and Jaret Wright are on the disabled list. Wang has helped with a 6-3 record since being recalled from the minors.
Boston didn’t tinker much with its roster until the last seven days when it acquired reliever Bradford in a trade with Oakland on Wednesday and second baseman Cora from Cleveland last Thursday, and activated backup outfielder Stern.
“We’ve played well but we’ll have to do even better in the second half,” Nixon said.
And it doesn’t matter to him who the Red Sox begin the second half against.
“I know we’ve got to beat the Yankees, but we need to beat them just as much as we need to beat everybody else out there,” he said.
The Fenway fans, though, treat these visitors far less politely than other opponents.
“Always hostile, but that’s part of it,” Sheffield said of the atmosphere. “We’ve grown used to it. It’s just a series where you go in, take care of your business and get out of there.”