Sox-Yanks set starts with doubleheader

Sox-Yanks set kicks off with doubleheader

Repetition is supposed to be inherently boring. Predictability seems to ensure a lack of drama. Yet somehow, the interest garnered by the biggest rivalry in baseball has not remotely diminished, and has only increased since the rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees was fully renewed in the late 1990s.

As the playoff race intensifies, each battle-tested team will surely play a role in the fate of the other. Ever since the DiMaggio brothers patrolled center field on opposing sides, the Red Sox and Yankees have experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, often at the expense of the other. This year seems to be shaping up no differently.

If the standings remain as they currently are, the Yankees will win their ninth consecutive American League East crown with the Red Sox right behind, as they have been in each of those years.

"You tip your caps to them," Coco Crisp said. "They've done a good job so far."

Even if most pundits forecasted New York and Boston to sit atop the division at the end of the season, the outcomes of 1949, 1978, 2003 and 2004 taught everyone that predictability is illogical when these two teams meet.

"We've got a lot of baseball [left]. If we play good baseball, we've got a chance to make a move playing the team that's ahead of us," manager Terry Francona said. "I'm looking forward to it. It should be fun."

In each of the past three seasons, the Yankees and Red Sox have attended the playoff party together, but 2006 may only provide an invitation for one. As of now, the East would not be able to send the AL Wild Card team for the first time since 2002 -- as if a series between the Yankees and Red Sox could produce more sweat and anxiety.

The Red Sox and Yankees meet for a five-game marathon at Fenway Park this weekend, beginning with a day-night doubleheader on Friday. Each team has won five games against the other this season.

"We're chasing the Yankees. We have five games against them, and it's a chance to gain some ground, but it's not the last time we'll see them," second baseman Mark Loretta said.

"It seems like a cliché, but we gotta take it one game at a time -- even the doubleheader," third baseman Mike Lowell said. "If you get caught up in what the five games might mean, you're just adding distraction to something we have to be very focused on."

"It's gonna be exciting, like it always is," Crisp said. "The fans are gonna be in it for us. We'll have that advantage. You're playing a team that's ahead of you right now, and each game counts as a full game. These five, they can easily switch from a couple games behind to three games ahead if we sweep the whole thing. You wanna go out there and focus on the first game, get that one and go from there. That first one is the big game."

As if disagreement could ever run dry between the two sides, the 2006 season seems to be providing the latest chapter in the MVP controversy between the Red Sox and Yankees.

The top candidates for this season's American League MVP seem to be boiling down between Boston's David Ortiz and New York's Derek Jeter. No two players have evoked as much emotion from their fans as these two icons. They are synonymous with clutch, contrasting in power and grace, and have become representative of the cities they play for. Any Yankees or Red Sox fan considers them family.

History has shown that the MVP is often decided in the last two months of the season, and if that is the case, then this weekend will certainly cast a vote. Ortiz is currently batting .286 with 42 home runs and 113 RBIs, and Jeter is batting .340 with 10 homers and 71 RBIs.

To start the series, Boston sinkerballer Jason Johnson will meet low-ball pitcher Chien-Ming Wang in Friday's matinee, and rookie Jon Lester and Sidney Ponson get their first taste of the legendary rivalry in the nightcap.

The Red Sox have seen their two pitchers struggle as of late and cannot afford to have them disappoint in their biggest series of the season thus far.

"The way the Yankees chew up pitches, we might have to [keep 13 pitchers on the roster]," Francona said. "We have Lester and Johnson going. I hope both of them go nine [innings], but going into the game, you certainly have to be aware that they haven't."

In his last two appearances, Johnson earned no-decisions, but only after losing seven straight starts. In his last outing, he allowed seven runs and nine hits in 5 1/3 innings against Baltimore.

He has not won a start since May 28 and has yet to win a game with the Red Sox. He is 2-9 with a 4.29 ERA against the Yankees in his career.

Lester picked up his first win in his last five starts on Sunday, but still continues to show the rust that was expected of a midseason callup, rather than the 5-0 record with which he began his career. This will be his first career start against the Yankees.

"He's in the middle of a pennant race. We're asking a lot of him. If his numbers have gone backward the last four or five starts, I don't know that that means that he's not doing the job or not getting better," Francona said. "He's at the Major League level at a young age, in the middle of a pennant race, without a lot of protection. He's going through some growing pains at times. I think it'd be abnormal if he didn't."

Pitching matchup
Game 1
NYY: RHP Chien-Ming Wang (13-5, 3.84 ERA)
Wang allowed a career-high 13 hits and five runs in 5 1/3 innings against the Angels on Sunday, but actually didn't pitch all that poorly. Of the 13 hits, 12 were singles, and many were ground balls through the hole. Wang is 1-2 with a 4.97 ERA in four starts against the Red Sox in his career. He went seven innings while giving up one run in a win against Boston the last time he faced them, on June 6.

BOS: RHP Jason Johnson (3-11, 6.26 ERA)
After taking the loss in seven straight starts, Johnson earned his second straight no-decision against Baltimore on Saturday. He allowed seven runs and nine hits over 5 1/3 innings. He is still without a win in a Boston uniform and has not won a start since May 28.

Game 2
NYY: RHP Sidney Ponson (4-5, 5.82 ERA)
Ponson is the front-runner for pitching the second game of the doubleheader against the Red Sox, but it's not set in stone yet. Manager Joe Torre said that Ponson has more experience than anybody he would call up from the Minors, and he doesn't want to start Ron Villone because he would lose him in the bullpen for the rest of the series. Ponson started two games for the Yankees before being replaced in the rotation by Cory Lidle. He had a combined ERA of 10.00, and in his past start, was hit with six earned runs in 2 1/3 innings against Toronto. Ponson gave up three earned runs in three innings in his last outing from the bullpen.

BOS: LHP Jon Lester (6-2, 4.09 ERA)
Lester picked up his first win in his last five starts against Baltimore on Sunday, but he looked like a struggling rookie. He allowed four runs and nine hits and threw 102 pitches in only five innings. The southpaw must regain his composure and harness his control in a must-win game against the Yankees.

Player to watch
Manny Ramirez is batting .500 (17-for-34) with five home runs and 14 RBIs against the Yankees this season.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• ESPN (Game 1); NESN (Game 2)

On radio
• WEEI 850 AM, WROL 950 AM (Espanol) (Español)

Up next
• Saturday: Red Sox (RHP Josh Beckett, 13-7, 5.02) vs. Yankees (LHP Randy Johnson, 13-9, 4.92), 1:20 p.m. ET
• Sunday: Red Sox (RHP Curt Schilling, 14-5, 3.83) vs. Yankees (RHP Mike Mussina, 13-5, 3.54), 8:05 p.m. ET
• Monday: Red Sox (LHP David Wells, 2-2, 6.06) vs. Yankees (RHP Cory Lidle, 9-9, 4.64), 1:05 p.m. ET

Howard Kussoy is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.