Once more into the void

swisher250.jpgSWISHER, HALF A HERO
After a long, long cold snap, Nick Swisher seemed to break out on the just-completed roadtrip, going 9-for-27 with four home runs. Such a streak is never a bad thing, but because of Swisher’s oddly divided season it’s entirely possible that he’ll go cold again as soon as he sets foot in Yankee Stadium. Fans attending home games have yet to see the best of Swisher. Fifteen of 18 home runs have come on the road, where he’s batting a terrific .276/.368/.602. At home, he’s hitting just .200/.374/.329. He still has his patience, but everything else disappears.

I sometimes wonder if Swisher, despite his goofy demeanor, is actually quite anxious in certain circumstances. This is the second year in a row he’s had a strange home/road bifurcation. Last year with Chicago he had the reverse problem, hitting .247/.361/.517 at home but only .189/.301/.294 on the road. There is no reason for these splits; Swisher would seem to be the only batter on the planet not taking advantage of new Yankee Stadium’s friendlier dimensions.

It’s not too late for Swisher to stop pressing and enjoy the fruits of the new ballpark. When playing at home, his batting average on balls in play is just .245, which suggests that even when he makes contact at home it’s not good contact, with too many fly balls being sent aloft in the hopes of catching the same jet stream that everyone else has found. If Swisher can resolve whatever ails him in the Bronx, even a small uptick the rest of the way would change his season from one that can be dismissed as just satisfactory and replaceable to something that is an uncontroversial asset.

The Yankees signed Russ Ortiz to a minor league contract. Ol’ Russ hasn’t had an ERA below 5.50 in any length of work since 2004. Since then, he’s gone 10-28 for the Diamondbacks, Orioles, Giants, and Astros, with a 6.56 ERA in 312.2 innings. Pitching at Scranton is awful thin these days, but with any luck they’ll have Sergio Mitre back soon.
20-GAME WATCH: Red Sox vs. Yankees
               W-L    RS/G  RA/G  AVG  OBP  SLG  AB/HR  SB   CS   HR/9   BB/9  K/9
Red Sox  10-10  5.5   4.6    .274    .352    .453      30         13    4     1.0      3.1    8.0
Yankees  14-6    5.2   4.4    .281   .361    .473       25         10    4      0.8      2.9    7.9

Here we are again. It’s difficult to know what to expect from this series given how badly the Yankees have struggled with the Red Sox this year. The Sox have struggled a bit of late, as their starting rotation has been reduced to Josh Beckett and Jon Lester plus prayer. The Yankees will get both of them this visit, and given the variability of the Yankees’ own starters, the advantage may well be with the Sox in those games. You’d think that A.J. Burnett would be able to hold his own on Friday against Beckett, but the Sox can be patient and Burnett wild. As for Andy Pettitte against Lester on Sunday, Pettitte has been all over the map this year, and while he’s been good lately with a 3.77 ERA in his last five starts, Lester has been at his best of late with a 2.65 ERA in his last five starts. Then again, it helps when the opponents are the Royals, Blue Jays, Orioles and A’s. The Yankees have also killed lefties this year, batting .293/.377/.490 against them as a team.

The series’ other two conflicts feature John Smoltz against Joba Chamberlain tonight and Clay Buchholz against CC Sabathia on Saturday. Joba has been on a three-start roll but also hasn’t pitched since the 29th, so the Yankees will have to hope that pushing him back didn’t cost him his command. The Red Sox hit him hard in his two starts against him this year (.341/.442/.477), though he struck out 14 and only allowed six runs. Smoltz is an interesting case. He’s 42, and more machine than man at this point. Since coming off of the disabled list, he’s shown decent stuff, a good strikeout rate, and excellent control. He has also, in all but one start, been pounded. This could be just luck–the batting average on balls in play against Smoltz is .370, but the line drive rate against him is actually low. That suggests that grounders and fly balls are falling more often than they should. Luck can change, and it’s possible that the Yankees will have a harder time with the grand old man than the statistics would initially suggest.

Since coming up from the minors, Buchholz has made four starts, alternating good and bad and not making it through the sixth inning in any case. This would seem like advantage Yankees given Sabathia, but the big man has been erratic of late, pushing an average of five runs per nine innings. He’s also been slightly less effective at home than on the road. Yankees fans will expect some motivated over-performance from Sabathia in this series, and no doubt the heart will be willing, but what if the flesh is weak? When a pitcher who is used to striking out eight batters a game is only getting five or six, performance may not be a matter of psychology but physicality.

After 0-8 and a 6.06 ERA against, I’m not making any predictions. My instinct is a split, which would preserve the status quo. That would be an improvement. You’d sure like to see the first win come tonight, though, just so everyone–team, fans, commentators–can feel as if the spell has been broken.

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