This is the moment the New York Yankees had in mind when they acquired Randy Johnson last winter: Tied for first place with archrival Boston with two games to play in front of a hostile crowd at Fenway Park.
The Big Unit hopes to deliver in his most important start for New York as the Yankees try to bounce back from a series-opening loss, and once again pull in front of the defending World Series champions.
Johnson, a five-time Cy Young Award winner, has endured a turbulent first season in New York, but the intimidating left-hander has a chance to put all that behind him with a victory Saturday. He is 4-0 with a 3.62 ERA in five starts against the Red Sox this year, and would go a long way toward carving a place for himself in this storied rivalry by helping the Yankees recover from a potentially devastating 5-3 loss Friday night.
“It’s not like we can live it up and pound our chest,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “We’ve got to come back and beat maybe the best pitcher in the league.”
Last October, the Yankees became the first team in major league history to blow an 0-3 series lead as Boston rallied to take the AL pennant en route to its first World Series title since 1918. Johnson was called in to make New York collapse-proof in a big series with the Red Sox.
He’ll get his chance Saturday, with the teams deadlocked for first in the AL East, and one game in front of Cleveland for the AL wild card.
Johnson will be opposed by veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who leads the Boston staff in wins (16), ERA (3.96), strikeouts (150) and innings (220 1-3). The last matchup between Johnson and Wakefield was a classic pitchers’ duel, which Johnson won 1-0 at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 11, allowing one hit and striking out eight over seven strong innings.
Wakefield was almost as good, surrendering a solo homer to Jason Giambi and just two other hits over eight innings, striking out a career-high 12 and walking only one.
Wakefield is 1-3 with a 3.03 ERA in five outings against New York this season.
It was former Yankee David Wells that pitched the Red Sox to victory Friday night. The burly lefty allowed three runs and six hits over seven solid innings as Boston broke through against New York rookie Chien-Ming Wang and held on with strong relief work from Chad Bradford, Mike Myers and Mike Timlin.
Derek Jeter hit a two-run homer for the Yankees, who had won 15 of their previous 18 to pull one game in front of the Red Sox.
New York has won each of the previous seven AL East titles, with Boston finishing second each time.
If the teams split the last two games, there could be a one-game playoff at Yankee Stadium. If Cleveland also is tied at 95 wins, the loser of the Boston-New York game would play the Indians on Tuesday for the wild-card berth.
The race for MVP between Boston slugger David Ortiz and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez appeared to go in favor of Ortiz in the series opener. The Red Sox’s designated hitter went 1-for-2 with a run scored and two walks, and drove in the tying run with a single in the bottom of the first inning.
Rodriguez finished 0-for-3 with a walk and run scored, and committed one of two New York errors.
“It was inevitable,” Rodriguez said. “You knew in spring training when you saw these three games it was going to come down to this.”