For the past two years, the scales between the Red Sox and the Yankees had been tilted too drastically to identify the games as part of a rivalry.
In 2019, the Yankees went 14-5 against the Sox. In the empty ballparks of 2020, New York won nine of 10 games between the two. The Red Sox’ combined 6-23 record translated to a .207 winning percentage against the Yankees over those two years — the worst two-year record by one team against the other in the 118 years in which they’ve faced off.
With the Red Sox missing the playoffs in each of the last two years, it’s been a long time since the two teams had anything close to an eye-to-eye encounter with anything meaningful on the line. That imbues this weekend’s three-game series between the teams with a layer of intrigue.
When the teams take the field on Friday, the Yankees (31-26) will be looking up in the standings at the Red Sox (33-23), with both teams in pursuit of the Rays (36-22) and mindful of the Blue Jays (29-25) in a clustered AL East. The proximity of the teams doesn’t seem like it’s created a case of the warm-and-fuzzies.
“We don’t like those guys. They don’t like us,” said Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner. “[There will be] a lot of energy. Having fans back in the stands will be fun.”
The competitive relevance of both teams and the return of fans will change the dynamics of the games from recent years. But so, too, will the unusual nature of a vexing Yankees team that inspires a confused inquiry: What in the name of Steve Balboni is happening in the Bronx?
After their 9-2 loss to the Rays on Thursday, the Yankees ranked 27th in the majors with 3.73 runs per game. Only once before in the DH era — in 1990, when the lineup featured a lot of Álvaro Espinoza (.532 OPS) and Bob Geren (.584) as well as a hearty dose of Deion Sanders (.507) and, of course, the Brockton-born Balboni (.694) — had a Yankees lineup been so run-deficient to this point in a season.
“Look at my eyes. I’ve got bags under them. I don’t sleep,” Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames said this week. “It needs to turn around. It hasn’t been pretty at all. That’s the biggest elephant in the room everywhere — the offense, the offense, the offense. I know that.”
The Yankees have seen their team line fall from .267/.339/.490 in 2019 to .247/.342/.447 in 2020 to .228/.317/.372 this year. Their strikeout rate has jumped from 21.7 percent last year to 25.1 percent this year, while their typical ability to offset their contact woes with power when they do make contact has fallen off considerably — perhaps a reflection of changes that MLB made to reduce the flight of flyballs this year.
“It’s not 2019 gorilla baseball anymore,” suggested Red Sox manager Alex Cora.
Aside from Aaron Judge (.922 OPS) and Giancarlo Stanton (.814 OPS, but 1 for 16 with 9 strikeouts since returning from the injured list), the Yankees’ lineup has been dreadful. The team has six regulars with an OPS below .700 in at least 100 plate appearances.
Still, Yankees manager Aaron Boone expressed optimism that players such as D.J. LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres will rebound from their poor starts.
“You seen the guys on our team? That gives me a lot of confidence. They’re guys who are really talented, really care what they’re doing, and have a track record of doing it,” said Boone. “Hitting in 2021 is probably as hard as it’s ever been, but I have a lot of faith in those guys that we’re really going to get it going.”
While many Yankees hitters are struggling, spectacular pitching has kept the team in the middle of the AL East race. The team’s 3.25 ERA thus far is its lowest through 57 games since 1981 (3.18).
The rotation features a solid 3.56 ERA (10th in MLB), driven by mostly standout work from Gerrit Cole (6-3, 2.26) and solid efforts from Corey Kluber, Domingo Germán, and Jordan Montgomery — though with the caveat that a shoulder injury for Kluber has the starting staff in flux. (New York wasn’t prepared to identify a Friday starter leading into Thursday’s game.)
Meanwhile, despite the absence of key setup options such as Zack Britton and Darren O’Day, the Yankees bullpen once again is overpowering opponents, forging a 2.82 ERA (best in the AL) as a group. Aroldis Chapman (4-0, 0.41 ERA, 42 strikeouts in 22 innings) has been the most dominant reliever in baseball.
“Our pitching has been everything we could have hoped for at this point,” said Boone. “I think the starters have been really solid. The bullpen has been excellent.”
The combination of excellent pitching and poor offensive production has created an unusual pattern for the Yankees. New York has the most wins in baseball (10) when scoring three runs or fewer — a surprising turn of events for a team that’s more often out-slugged opponents over the last 25 years.
Still, while the types of games being played by the Yankees this year have been different from recent seasons, meaning may return to the contests.
“Being in the middle of the whole thing, people are going to be watching,” said Cora. “They are where they are in the standings. We are where we are in the standings. They have a good team. We have a good team. … We have to be ready for a fun weekend. It should be loud, it should be fun. It’s Yankees-Red Sox, and people are going to be watching.”