Why the Red Sox and Yankees matter, are the Indians for real, and other questions

Five questions for the weekend, while we figure out the Indians’ magic number:

So, why does this weekend’s Red Sox-Yankees series matter?

Two reasons. One, because someone has to finish second behind the Rays. And two, because the Yankees are the only team the Red Sox can beat.

First things first. The Rays are 23-9 after losing their first six games, and have outscored their opponents by 59 runs in that stretch.  They’ve won 13 of their last 17 on the road, they’re fourth in MLB in ERA, and they did much of it without their best player — Evan Longoria has only been active the last 10 games.

How? Check our post from Jan. 12. Or look at the offseason moves the three contenders in the AL East made to improve their bullpens. The Yankees are paying Rafael Soriano $9 million; he’s walked 11 in 15 innings and has a 5.40 ERA (not to mention his elbow is touchy). The Red Sox paid Bobby Jenks $6 million; for that he’s on the DL (back) after allowing 13 hits, nine walks and nine runs in 8.2 innings. The Rays combined to spend $4.4 million on Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz and Joel Peralta — three players who have disappointed so many previous emplyers. For the Rays, they’ve pitched 46.1 innings, allowed 32 hits, have a 2.53 ERA, 7 saves, five holds and four wins.

Identifying talent and paying it appropriately isn’t luck; it’s a skill. And of those three teams, you don’t have to be Adam Smith to know who’s getting more for their money.

As for the Red Sox, they’re still mediocre. They’re 18-20 and have been outscored 174-160. But against the Yankees, they’re 3-1 and have outscored them 22-15. When Sunday’s game ends, the Red Sox should go wherever the Yankees do.

How long can the Pirates flirt with .500?

Not long. Because as a famous civil rights orator once said, “No lie can live forever.”

The idea the Pirates are improved and can take inspiration from the Royals and Indians? About as real as Charlie Morton’s 3.13 ERA.

The Pirates are 18-20, but shouldn’t be; if you think that’s progress, it’s a false spring. They’ve been outscored by 21 runs, and they still look like a 90-loss team here.

Even worse and more foreboding is the performance — or lack thereof — of the young players who are supposed to be the drivers of their resurgence.

Pedro Alvarez is hitting .198 with 38 strikeouts in 111 at-bats; Jose Tabata is hitting .229 and slugging .364; Andrew McCutchen has seven homers but is hitting .229; pitcher James McDonald has a 6.20 ERA; even waiver-wire pickup Brandon Wood has just three extra-base hits in 36 at-bats.

Neil Walker is the one young player who is achieving, but otherwise the Pirates are better because Kevin Correia is 5-3 (career record 41-46), Morton is 4-1 (15-30 career) and Joel Hanrahan has 11 saves despite allowing 20 hits in 19 innings.

It’s not true PNC Park, the Pirates’ home stadium, stands for Pirates No Chance. But it could.

When’s Carl Crawford, Mr. .212, going to hit?

About the same time Dan Uggla (.196) does. Or Jorge Posada (.165). Or Kelly Johnson (.190). Or Brendon Ryan (.204) — scratch that last example.

Reading baseball stats is like stepping on a scale. Eventually they find the middle, or the natural order of things. Players not hitting will hit.

And those that are hitting — Matt Holliday (.398), Matt Joyce (.369, career .266), Jose Bautista (.365, career .249) –will recede at least a little.

It takes patience to follow baseball — and not just because of all the attempted pickoff throws to first when there’s a slow runner on base.

How bad are the Twins?

Worse. They’re 12-24, 11.5 games behind and have lost six in a row.

But they have’t played that well. They’re last in MLB in runs allowed (189), last in runs scored (113); their differential of minus 76  is 31 runs worse than the next worst differential.

The Twins have been so bad it’s almost a surprise not that they pitched a no-hitter, but that they won the game.

You can blame some of it on injuries — Joe Mauer has but 34 at-bats and Delmon Young 61, but the Twins have just one home run combined from Justin Morneau, Mauer and Young. They have 17 as a team; Jose Bautista and Curtis Granderson remain five behind.

Nowhere have the Twins been more inept than when the phone rings in the bullpen. Their team relief ERA is 4.82; everyone other than Glen Perkins (0.48 ERA) has combined for a 5.74 ERA. The Twins’ bullpen — even including Perkins — has combined to give up 115 hits, 55 walks and 57 earned run in 106.1 innings. Of course, the good news is the Twins’ have had precious few leads for the bullpen to lose.

Even worse news, of course, was Friday’s revelation that Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew (573 career home runs) was entering hospice care. It’s going to be a long, sad summer for Twins fans, who deserve better.

Are the Indians for real?

Their fans don’t think so — in their 19 home games (of which they’ve won 15), they’ve drawn more than 20,000 fans three times. One of those was opening day, and another was Friday. They drawn less than 50,000 combined for three mid-week games vs. the Rays.

Of course, Indians’ fans should be jaded. And a team whose ace was Fausta Carmona, whose double-play combination was two Cabreras who walk less than one and which depended on Matt LaPorta to hit didn’t inspire devotion on opening day.

But the Indians lead the American League and are second in all of baseball in run differential — that’s not an accident. They’re tied for sixth in runs scored, sixth in runs allowed, fourth in fielding percentage.

Travis Hafner is hitting, Grady Sizemore is healthy and their bullpen is deep and balanced — Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp set up vs. lefties, Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano vs. righties and Chris Perez closes. They’ve gotten 26 quality starts from a rotation that includes Josh Tomlin (7-for-7) and call-up Alex White.

Lastly, consider this: the Indians have done all this while Shin-Soo Choo has hit .222 and slugged .354, and Carlos Santana has hit. 220 and slugged .382.

I started the season as a non-believer. I’ll hold off on World Series tickets, but some of the Indians’ improvement is legitimate.

Long term, it’s easier to like the Royals more. Short-term, the Tigers are no cinch to win the AL Central.

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