Orfao: Red Sox, Yankees look ready to reignite rivalry in 2018

  • Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale delivers to the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning of a spring training baseball game Monday, March 19, 2018, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) Chris O'Meara—AP

  • New York Yankees' Giancarlo Stanton grounds out against Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Sean Keselica during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. Yankees' Tyler Wade scored on the play. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) Chris O'Meara—AP

  • New York Yankees' Aaron Judge, left, heads for first base as Greg Bird scores on a bases loaded walk by Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Sean Keselica during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) Chris O'Meara—AP

  • Boston Red Sox's Mookie Betts reacts after hitting the game-tying three-run double off Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Raisel Iglesias in the eighth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Cincinnati. The Red Sox won 5-4. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) John Minchillo—AP

  • New York Yankees second baseman Ronald Torreyes tags out Boston Red Sox runner Rafael Devers (11) attempting to steal second base during the fifth inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept.2, 2017, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) Bill Kostroun—AP

  • Boston Red Sox batter Andrew Benintendi rounds the bases after hitting a home run as New York Yankees pitcher Sonny Gray, right, looks on during the fifth inning of a baseball game Friday, Sept.1, 2017, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) Bill Kostroun—AP

  • Boston Red Sox's Andrew Benintendi watches the flight of his drive during a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa—AP

  • Name hereJohn Minchillo—AP Name hereJohn Minchillo—AP

  • New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone speaks during a news conference at baseball spring training camp, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) Lynne Sladky—AP

  • The Red Sox added slugger J.D. Martinez in the offseason in hopes of strengthening a lineup that was last in the Majors in home runs in 2017. AP file

  • Cora

Monitor staff
Thursday, March 29, 2018

The rivalry will never be what it once was, but it’s ready for a reboot.

The Red Sox have earned back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history. The ballclub is equipped with 25-year-old superstar Mookie Betts, a pair of tantalizing talents in 23-year-old Andrew Benintendi and 21-year-old Rafael Devers, and three starting pitchers who have finished among the top two in AL Cy Young voting over the last three years – 2015 runner-up David Price, 2016 winner Rick Porcello and 2017 runner-up Chris Sale. The Sox still have flame-throwing closer Craig Kimbrel, they’re adding manager Alex Cora from World Series-champion Houston and they bought the biggest bat on the free-agent market in J.D. Martinez.


That seems to be the vibe from many Boston sports fans as the Red Sox open the 2018 season at Tampa Bay on Thursday at 4 p.m.

Television ratings on NESN were reportedly down 20 percent in 2017, and we’ve turned into a region that remembers a 1-6 record over the past two postseasons with more clarity than the 93 wins preceding each playoff disappointment.

The region has binged on sports success for the better part of two decades. Playoffs used to be a privilege. Now, it’s the minimum expectation.

This shift is illustrated in a nugget offered on Twitter by Boston Sports Info (@bostonsportsinf) after the Bruins clinched a playoff spot last week, noting this is the sixth time in 58 possible years that all four Boston teams made the postseason. Five of those occurrences have come in the past 15 years (2017, 2016, 2009, 2007 and 2003). The only other time was 1986. Sprinkle in the 10 championship parades since 2001, and we’ve become the sports equivalent of rich kids on Instagram.

In the midst of an era unlike any other in Boston sports, it takes more drama to captivate a casual fan than ever before.

Batman needed the Joker. Superman needed Lex Luthor. And the Boston Red Sox need the New York Yankees.

No, the rivalry will never be what it once was. It would take selling the greatest ballplayer ever and 86 years of losing to build the level of resentment that crescendoed in 2004.

But the stage is set for a revival.

Last year, the Red Sox and Yankees finished one-two in the AL East for the first time since 2009. It used to be the norm. From 1998 to 2005, the Yankees were the AL East champions and the Red Sox were the runners-up.

Based on the promising roster construction of each squad, another lengthy stretch of AL East baseball dominated by the Red Sox and Yankees seems likely.

While the franchises are poised for future success, the roster contrast makes for an even more compelling matchup.

New York acquired baseball-bashing behemoth Giancarlo Stanton, adding the player with the most homers in 2017 to the team with the most homers in 2017. The 6-foot-6 Stanton and his 6-7 teammate Aaron Judge look as if they’re modeled after the Monstars from Space Jam compared to the 5-foot-10 Benintendi and 5-9 Betts. Their numbers are also monstrous. Stanton and Judge combined for 111 home runs last season. Boston went deep just 168 times as a team.

The Red Sox seem to have the better rotation, but the Yankees look deep in the bullpen.

Add Aaron Bleeping Boone as the New York manager penciling names into the lineup card – did the Yankees push for Bucky Dent as bench coach, too? – and the ingredients are there for a recipe Red Sox nation will love to hate.

It won’t take long to become acquainted with the Yanks – the teams meet for a three-game set at Fenway starting April 10 – but a head-to-head ALCS is what the rivalry needs to rekindle genuine animosity.

Here’s some things to look for as we begin a 162-game grind to October:

Make it three

This could certainly look foolish in six months, but it seems the four best teams in the American League are the same four clubs left standing in 2017 – Boston, New York, 2016 AL champion Cleveland and 2017 World Series champion Houston. The Indians and Astros are overwhelming favorites to win their divisions and either the Red Sox or Yankees will likely be forced into the Wild Card game.

Given the volatility of a one-game playoff, claiming a third straight division title is of the utmost importance.

New voice

John Farrell had a great run with the Red Sox. He won a World Series and three division titles during a five-year stint. Once upon a time, that would be enough to get a street named after you in Boston, but his personality was never embraced by many fans – and players based on comments in spring training – so ownership moved on. Cora seems to be a great fit in the clubhouse, and now it’s up to the ballplayers to respond.

Road to recovery

Starting pitchers Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz will start the season on the 10-day disabled list, but the team’s official injury report lists them due back in “possibly April.” Let’s hope possibly is closer to definitely, because the rotation’s depth takes quite a hit with Hector Velazquez penciled in as the No. 4 starter.

It will also be intriguing to see how Dustin Pedroia returns from knee surgery. While Eduardo Nunez is a nice insurance policy, the Red Sox are hoping there’s still some tread left on Pedroia’s tires.

Fingers crossed

Carson Smith can be the key to unlocking a dominant back end of the bullpen. Injuries have plagued him since he was acquired via trade in the 2016 offseason. He’s pitched fewer than 10 innings over the past two seasons. But the 27-year-old Smith stands 6-foot-6 with a devastating slider and a career 1.95 ERA. If the arm proves sturdy, he’s a perfect eighth-inning bridge to Kimbrel.

Offensively, all eyes will be on Martinez due to the winter-long negotiation to reel him into Boston, along with his eye-popping rate of one homer per 9.6 at-bats in 2017.

Much like Smith, his success seems completely hinged to his health. Martinez has produced at an All-Star level since 2014, but the 30-year-old has played more than 123 games just once in his seven-year career. Keep your fingers crossed, Boston.

Looking ahead

If the Red Sox are fighting for their playoff lives come mid-September, they’ll certainly have to earn their spot down the stretch. From Sept. 18-23, Boston will embark on a six-game road trip to the Bronx and Cleveland. If the division isn’t settled after a visit from Baltimore, the regular season closes with a three-game series at Fenway against the Yankees from Sept. 28-30.

It might be wise to secure tickets now. The rivalry is due for a revival.

(Jason Orfao can be reached at jorfao@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JasonOrfao.)