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May 24, 2006:

The Nation Speaks

Hell Week in the Fens

Randy Johnson, Scott Kazmir, Ted Lilly

(Reuters and AP Photos)

The calendar might say May, but don't take the summer whites out of mothballs just yet. In this land of eternal September, there will be a distinctive autumn nip in the air this week as the Red Sox dig in against their chief antagonists in three key matchups that should offer the first prognostications for October on Yawkey Way.

The curtain lifts tonight as 5-4 Randy Johnson takes the mound for the Yankees at Fenway Park. Next comes Scott Kazmir (7-2) on Friday when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays come to town. The anchor will be Ted Lilly (4-4), who awaits in Toronto where the Sox will close a three-game series one week from tonight.

The three lefties have combined for a 14-3 record in their 27 starts against the Red Sox dating back to 2004. That's when Lilly rejoined the American League East and Kazmir came over in a trade with the Mets. Johnson arrived in the Bronx a season later.

Most of this damage was inflicted last season. The triumvirate of Johnson, Kazmir, and Lilly combined for a 9-1 record with a 3.27 ERA, .222 batting average against, and 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings over their 16 Boston starts. They arguably played a bigger role in the Red Sox abdicating the AL East crown than did Keith Foulke's knees, Edgar Renteria's glove, or Kevin Millar's bat. During last September's homestretch, the Sox lost four of the five games started by a member of the lefty trio and watched their 3½ game Labor Day lead evaporate.

It was Johnson who turned in the marquee performance of that run. On September 11, he held Boston to one hit over seven innings in a 1-0 win at Yankee Stadium. Granted, the version of the Big Unit we saw two weeks ago was more like the Big Eunuch. The Sox pounded him for five hits and seven runs — three earned — in an appearance characterized by the New York media as gutless. Moreover, he is pitching poorly this year, certainly more so than in the start of his first season in the Bronx. But when the weather warmed last year, so did RJ. He finished 17-8, including 5-0 in six starts against Boston.

Whereas Johnson was an addition of gluttony, Lilly and Kazmir were additions of necessity. For Toronto and Tampa Bay to see October any time soon, they have to forge inroads against either Boston or New York. After the 2003 season, the Red Sox certainly appeared the more attainable. Perhaps empowered by Boston's 26-27 record in games started by lefties, the Jays and Rays both set out to bolster their rotations by juggling southpaws.

Toronto moved Mark Hendrickson — who never mastered his surroundings at the SkyDome — to Tampa Bay and acquired Lilly. The Jays also called up Gustavo Chacin late in the 2004 season. Meanwhile the Devil Rays, in addition to picking up Hendrickson, signed John Halama and traded for Kazmir before the 2004 deadline. With so much mud slung on the walls that partitioned them from the AL East's elite, some was bound to stick. In the case of Lilly and Kazmir, some did.

The forced intimacy brought on by an unbalanced schedule has produced one silver lining for intra-divisional have-nots. Scheduling 19 games against divisional foes is MLB's equivalent to housing five siblings under the same roof. With that much time together, you learn everything about your brother and that knowledge helps you in cutting an existence of your own. It's hard to hide dirty laundry.

Just ask Mariano Rivera who has blown only 11 save opportunities since 2003, but six to the Red Sox, who are well acquainted with his cutter. Ask David Ortiz, whose .327 start was interrupted by a Devil Rays shift that employed four outfielders and a semi-vacant infield. He's hit .250 since as other teams have employed shifts of their own.

That's what makes this week so important. Tampa Bay and Toronto have been watching and taking notes. The former makes a dangerous spoiler who finds vindication in watching Kazmir shut down their feuding partners to the north. The latter have now graduated to contender status and savor the potential two-game swing in the standings whenever Lilly is up against their rivals. As for the Yankees, they will always be that immovable big brother that hogs the bathroom.

Each now owns a policy that insures it for some degree of success against Boston. All have collected on it in the past and will make claims at every opportunity to come. No such policy is currently in force against the Yankees, nor has one been since Tawny Kitaen knocked hubby Chuck Finley out of baseball with a right cross.

So, the Sox lineup can figure on a steady dose of Johnson, Kazmir, and Lilly for the remainder of the season. That's 11 potential starts in all, kicking off tonight. Pretty substantial for a division that was determined by a tiebreaker last year.

-- Bob Ekstrom, Boston Dirt Dogs contributor and writer at Sports Central

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