The players we love to hate

The New York/Boston rivalry lost a familiar face on Tuesday when Jason Varitek and his scarlet C announced his retirement. Varitek had been all but pushed out by Boston and couldn’t find or imagine finding another job with another club anywhere else. And so he’ll join the long list of players who have left the game but served as familiar faces during the halcyon days of the great Yankee/Red Sox games.

Varitek, before I get too nostalgic for a player I could barely stand to watch, was one of those guys who seemingly defined the great rivalry years from the mid 2000s. He was the player Yankee fans loved to hate, and hate him we did. Ironically, his defining moment came when he went after a Yankee whom Yankee fans love to hate. After an ill-timed beanball, Varitek and A-Rod started shoving each other in a 2004 fight. Varitek kept his mask on, and the rest, they say, was history. Yankee fans could never speak of the Sox’s catcher again without referencing his fight.

Of course, Varitek’s place in this dispute was more than just about that fight. He was supposedly the Red Sox’s answer to Jorge Posada, but the comparison never was a good one. Perhaps his pitchers liked him more, but Varitek’s bat paled in comparison to Jorge’s, and despite some unfortunately memorable home runs, Varitek’s offensive career against the Yankees was subpar. In 172 games, he hit .226/.308/.388 with just an 80 tOPS. In 2005, he battered around a bruised Yankee staff, but during most years, he didn’t do much hitting.

Yet, he was always there, a reminder of what exactly for Yankee fans? A team that would fight with its masks on? An undeservedly smug attitude? Something dirty about Boston that Yankee fans hated? Whatever it was, Jason Varitek seemed to embody that ethos, that thing that we couldn’t stand.

These days, Yankees/Red Sox games are rote affairs. We must go through the overly dramatic production of a FOX game or an ESPN special. We’re forced to pretend to be outraged when the new Red Sox manager says something strange about a thing that happened 11 years ago. We try to get worked up as though beating one team during a regular season contest is about glory, life, baseball. Plus, there are only a few guys worth even somewhat despising on the Red Sox of 2012.

So today, perhaps we lost a part of a history we can’t decide if we want to forget or remember. Varitek was around in 2003 when the Yanks dashed the Red Sox’s hopes, and Varitek was front and center when the Red Sox stormed back for an historic victory in 2004. Then he hung around for years as the Yanks and Red Sox squared off now and then in a series of sometimes-tense and sometimes-tedious regular season series. Now, with his mask still on, he’s joined the long list of players who had a starring role in during the heyday of the rivalry. I don’t think I’ll be missing him too much, but I may begrudgingly tip my cap to him on the eve of his retirement from the game we all love.

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Pending physical, Scutaro to join Red Sox

The draft giveth and the draft taketh away. Although the Red Sox earned themselves two first-round picks when the Braves signed Billy Wagner last night, they may be surrendering their other first-round pick as they are on the verge of signing Marco Scutaro. Lídre Deportes first broke the news, and Ed Price has confirmed that the Sox will give Scutaro two years. Michael Silverman of The Boston Herald says the deal will include a mutual option for a third year. As we thought at the time, the news about Dustin Pedroia’s potentially moving to short was just a negotiating ploy.

Scutaro turned 34 on Halloween and is a career .265/.337/.384 hitter over eight seasons with the Mets, A’s and Blue Jays. He had a career year last year, hitting .282/.379/.409 with a career-high in home runs (12) and RBI (60). It was his first season with an OPS+ over 100. My, how Jed Lowrie’s stock has dropped. No word yet on the money.

Wagner OK’s trade to Red Sox

Despite a public tiff with current Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, Billy Wagner is heading to Boston. Despite rumors last night that he would decline the trade, the left-handed reliever, 11 months removed from Tommy John Surgery, has approved a trade to the Red Sox, Jon Heyman reported a few minutes ago. Wagner has looked dominant in his rehab appearances and has thrown two scoreless innings with four strike outs for the Mets this month. The Red Sox will ship two players to be named later to New York and will pay Wagner a little over $3 million — a little over $2 million for this year plus a $1 million buyout for 2010 — for five weeks of regular season pitching.

Last week, I had urged the Yankees to claim Wagner, and in the end, one of the two teams that could block the Yankees from acquiring the lefty did so. While Wagner, poor October track record notwithstanding, is a weapon in any bullpen, I believe the Red Sox made this move as much to block the Yanks as they did to improve their own team. Such are the ways of late-season trade machinations.

Making the most out of a trip to Boston

Nearly two weeks ago, the Red Sox left New York reeling. They had just been swept by the Yankees to fall 6.5 games out of first place in the AL East. It was a good weekend for Yankee fans.

Since then, though, the Red Sox have recovered. While the Yankees have gone 7-3 over their last ten games since facing Boston, the Red Sox have also gone 7-3 since leaving the Bronx. They just wrapped up a three-game sweep of Toronto in which they scored 24 runs and gave up just 11. This weekend’s match-up features two hot teams playing for right now.

The Yankees, as we well know, have not had much luck in Boston this season. They’re 0-6 in Fenway, and barring an October match-up, this weekend’s trip will be the last of the season. Tyler Kepner explored how the Yankees have something to prove in Boston.

This weekend, though, goes well beyond something to prove. This weekend will determine the AL East. We’ll find out if the Yankees have to worry about the Red Sox. We’ll find out if the Red Sox can mount a comeback. We’ll find out if the very hot Yankees can come into Fenway and make a statement.

As things stand right now, the Yankees are 6.5 games up, and they can leave Fenway in one of four positions. They could sweep and be 9.5 games up. September would be a cakewalk for them. They can win two of three and head home with a comfortable 7.5 game lead. They could lose two of three and find themselves 5.5 games up. Or they could find themselves on the wrong end of yet another Fenway sweep and feel the Red Sox breathing down their necks just 3.5 games out of first.

Of course, we’ll hope for the three-game sweep but be satisfied with two of three. Even that outcome would strip four games off the Yanks’ Magic Number, and the pitching match-ups favor the Bombers. How will it end is anyone’s guess, but it’s bound to be a wild weekend no matter what. In Fenway, it always is.

Game Thread: Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN

A lot of RAB readers and commenters requested an open thread/game thread for the Red Sox/Rays game yesterday. While we didn’t oblige yesterday, we will today. So feel free to use this thread as a catch-all for anything you want.

The Red Sox and Josh Beckett’s 6.75 ERA are hosting the Rays and Matt Garza tonight, and it should be a good one. The Rays crushed the Sox yesterday and face another pitcher with an inflated ERA tonight. Carlos Peña is not in the starting nine for the Rays, and Julio Lugo is no longer DHing or playing short. Will this finally be the Game David Ortiz hits a home run?

The lineups come to us via Extra Bases.

Red Sox
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
3. David Ortiz, DH
4. Jason Bay, LF
5. Mike Lowell, 3B
6. J.D. Drew, RF
7. Jeff Bailey, 1B
8. Jason Varitek, C
9. Nick Green, SS

Rays
1. B.J. Upton, CF
2. Carl Crawford, LF
3. Evan Longoria, 3B
4. Pat Burrell, DH
5. Willy Aybar, 1B
6. Ben Zobrist, RF
7. Akinori Iwamura, 2B
8. Jason Bartlett, SS
9. Dioner Navarro, C

Have fun and behave yourselves. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the RAB mothers out there as well.

The Red Sox never forget

I know this one went around a few days ago, but with my finals schedule, I’ve had this tab open and no time to post it. Since we’re whiling away the hours until a 7 p.m. start time tonight, let’s get to some good ol’ fashioned mocking of the Boston Red Sox.

Earlier this week, with the Yanks trailing by a run and a runner already on base, Joba Chamberlain hit Jason Bay with an 0-0 fastball. At the time, I thought nothing of it and was more dismayed that the Red Sox had two runners on than anything else. Boston, apparently, thought otherwise.

As Rob Bradford detailed on WEEI’s Full Count blog this week, the Red Sox won’t forget that HBP. Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell had quite the rant too:

“Typically, we let the game play out itself because I think our guys have each others backs and they are certainly going to be supportive if a situation like that were to arise. Speaking specifically about last night, he strikes out 12 guys, doesn’t seem to have too many command issues, and if there was a purpose or intent to throw up and in you can disguise it a little bit more than making it very obvious with the first pitch in the middle of the back to Jason Bay. Those things aren’t forgotten. We know there is a history there between the pitcher in New York and our guys here and not to say that he was specifically out to do that but I think history speaks for itself and we’ve got a number of games left with these guys.”

To which I say: Give me a break. The last thing Joba wanted to do was risk falling further behind. That was probably one of Chamberlain’s least intentional HBPs, and it pales in comparison the Joba-Youkilis drama that gets played out every time the two teams meet. Maybe Josh Beckett will throw up and in to A-Rod or Hideki Matsui when these two teams next month, but that would just be blatant retribution for a meaningless hit batter. Let it go, Boston. Let it go.

Same rivalry, new faces

When David Ortiz takes to the field plate later tonight, it will mark his 101st regular season game as a member of the Red Sox facing the Yankees. Since 2003, no one on Boston has faced the Yankees more often than Ortiz has, and he knows the rivalry quite well.

Lately, though, Ortiz has been a shell of the player who killed the Yankees in 2003 and 2004. As Alan Schwarz detailed yesterday, Ortiz is an out-of-shape DH-only player, and those do not age gracefully. While his bat has shown signs of life over the last few games, he is hitting .220/.294/.322 with no home runs in the early going. He’s either primed for a breakout or has entered what we’ll diplomatically call the “decline” phase of his career.

Yesterday, in preparation for this weekend’s big series against the Yankees, the Red Sox vet offered up some unsolicited advice to the Yankees. Particularly, Ortiz decided to warn Joba Chamberlain about his past headhunting. “None of that, man — just play the game the way it’s supposed to be, and that’s about it,” Ortiz said “This is a guy, as good as he is, the next step for him will be to earn respect from everybody in the league. He’s not a bad guy, but when things like that happen, people get the wrong idea.”

Apparently, Kevin Youkilis can’t speak up for himself.

Anyway, when Joba takes the mound tonight, he’ll get the hero’s welcome in Boston, but he has a game to win. He has to keep his emotions — and his fastball — under control, and he will have to go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox ace. Last year, he outdueled Josh Beckett in Boston to announce his arrival as a Major League starter. This year, he’ll have to go toe-to-toe with Jon Lester, arguably a better pitcher than Beckett. It is no small task, and with boos raining down, it won’t be the easiest environment in which Joba must pitch.

But Chamberlain isn’t the only player due for some Boston scorn. While A-Rod, the object of New England’s collective affection, won’t be there, Mark Teixeira will, and you know what they say about a lover scorned. As the Yanks’ first baseman said to The Star-Ledger, he expects a hostile crowd tonight. “I’m sure they’ll be heavy boos,” Teixeira said. “I would expect nothing less from those fans. I would expect nothing less than tons of boos and tons of energy in the stadium. This is a great rivalry. It’s going to be a fun weekend.”

The Red Sox will be booing at Teixeira because he had the audacity to take a better offer in New York when the team’s owner refused to up his deal by another $10 million. Teixeira reminded anyone listening of that fact yesterday. “I enjoyed talking with the Red Sox all offseason,” he said. “There’s no question why the Red Sox are in the position they are. Because he’s an incredible GM and they have a great organization. There were opportunities for every team that I dealt with. Every team had a chance. Every team was given an opportunity to make their best offer. In the end, the Yankees made the best and it was a great fit for me.”

And so it goes. It’s the same game with new faces, and those new faces are fitting in off the field quite nicely. Welcome to the Red Sox/Yankees Rivalry 2009.