Saturday, September 15, 2007

Stop Worrying, and Learn to Love the Yanks


By SELENA ROBERTS
Sports of The Times
September 16, 2007

BOSTON

The usual nonplussed facade of Chien-Ming Wang revealed an extra stage of bewilderment yesterday as he watched Kevin Youkilis writhing in the batter’s box.

Youkilis was almost spinning in the dirt — in some awkward break-dance move — from the pain of a Wang fastball, high and tight. Youkilis is Boston’s goateed tough guy of the biker variety. So it created a stir when he exited the field with his wrist on its way to a brilliant black and blue.

All the while, as the scene unfolded at Fenway Park, questions seemed to dart across Wang’s confused mind — like what just happened and what have I done?

He supplied smelling salts for the Red Sox. That’s what. For the last seven games of this rivalry, the Red Sox looked like a team experiencing mental atrophy after a season with a comfortable division lead.

The old Curt Schilling T-shirt from the Red Sox’ World Series run that read, “Why not us?” seemed rewritten this season with, “What us, Worry?”

It doesn’t matter if Wang made a mistaken pitch or a purpose pitch or a pitch that Youkilis spun into as he held up his swing in the fifth inning. Suddenly, the Red Sox were with it again, into it once more during a 10-1 victory. Suddenly, the Yankees’ Friday night fantasy comeback had been diluted by Boston’s awakening in a game it viewed as Joba Payback.

The mythical Joba Chamberlain was suspended two games for buzzing Youkilis on two uncharacteristically untamed pitches Aug. 30 at Yankee Stadium. Move on, urged the managers. No grudge, the players lied.

Wang, of all placid pitchers, snuffed out the make-believe peace pipe. Wang, of all emotionless Yankees, flipped the Red Sox on.

What a waste of a psychological edge by the Yankees. What a squandering of its position as a threat to Boston. What a downward spiral it could trigger as the Yankees try to fend off Detroit for the wild card.

The Yankees weren’t prepared for what yesterday brought. They were flat — even physically dazed. A kick-line of incidents followed Wang’s pitch into Youkilis, which arrived with one out and the game tied, 1-1.

As Fox’s Joba Cam (at least it seemed like it) focused on Chamberlain pacing in the bullpen, the Red Sox zeroed in on Wang. They took the lead in the fifth with one rip after another, and then rocked catcher Jorge Posada in the sixth when Eric Hinske rumbled toward home with the body of a beer truck.

He plowed in with his elbows planting on Posada’s jaw as the two tumbled over the plate. Posada held on to Melky Cabrera’s targeted throw from center field. Hinske was out, but the clam-chowder faithful cheered his barreling ways. Posada blinked his eyes, as if trying to stop Fenway Park’s Green Monster from looking like a carousel ride. He was still lost in space when Jacoby Ellsbury slid beneath his unfocused tag later in the inning.

The Red Sox’ runs kept coming against almost every Yankee pitcher Manager Joe Torre unmercifully trotted out — everyone except Chamberlain. He is their Hope Diamond, to be kept encased until select occasions.

And yet in some time-delayed way, Chamberlain’s actions, whether intentional or not last month, manifested in a Red Sox response yesterday.

Boston’s revival meant more than ensuring that the Red Sox exit this three-game set today with a solid lead intact with two weeks remaining. It meant restoring the credibility of their season at the top of the division and putting the Yankees in their place: second.

Until Wang tagged Youkilis, the Red Sox were revealing signs of a seasonal lack of interest. Even closer Jonathon Papelbon admitted to being uninspired when he faced the Yankees on Friday — and was flattened by them. Even Manager Terry Francona seemed stressed by the tension of that game when he panicked and inserted Papelbon during the eighth inning in need of six outs.

Remember when Torre did that with Mariano Rivera early in the season? It was a sign of desperation, an indication of a crisis situation, a try at jolting the Yankees from their pre-All-Star Game break malaise.

They broke free, all right. The Yankees have been on a tear, and yet you wonder when, and if, the mental fatigue of chasing the Red Sox for three months will wear on them.

The lethargy of being first had been settling on Boston. Francona didn’t need Papelbon to reclaim the Red Sox’ attention. Wang did that for him.



Will the Yankees offer a reply? Roger Clemens has always had an answer — ask Mike Piazza. Clemens is returning to Fenway Park today for the first time in four years, but as a much different pitcher, as a superstar in decline, as a Rocket with an elbow held together with paper clips and rubber bands.

He is still Roger Clemens, though. He is capable of ratcheting up the drama. But will it be irrelevant after Wang already gave the Red Sox the motivation they needed. What has he done?

E-mail:selenasports@nytimes.com

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