Wang hopes to jump ahead of Beckett

Wang hopes to jump ahead of Beckett

The thought ought to shoot chills up any Yankees fan's spine.

What if Chien-Ming Wang, whose brilliance for a second straight year finally has him drawing ace-worthy plaudits and American League Cy Young Award consideration, had never returned? What if he had remained injured five months ago? What if his right hamstring, strained during Spring Training, had torn or ruptured? What if he had stayed on the disabled list longer than just three weeks before he took his place at the top of the Yankees' rotation on April 24?

Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon can follow that line of questioning.

"Without him," Damon says, "and [with] a couple of the losing streaks we had earlier in the season, who knows where we would be at?"

After Friday's win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park, the Yankees lead the Tigers in the race for the AL Wild Card by 3 1/2 games. And they are set, on Saturday at 3:55 p.m. ET, to send their Cy Young candidate to the Fenway mound against Red Sox ace Josh Beckett.

Saturday promises more than the usual Yankees-Red Sox drama -- it features a pair of 27-year-old Cy Young front-runners employing varied pitching styles and carrying a league-leading 18 wins, not to mention the World Series hopes of their respective fan bases.

In his last start against the Sox, Wang took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, finishing with seven innings of one-hit ball in one of the best performances of any pitcher against Boston this season. Nearly six months ago, the 6-foot-3 Taiwanese sinkerballer couldn't pitch after straining his hamstring while running on March 23.

Not until May did Wang shake off the rust of the offseason and establish himself as the same dominant mound presence that he was in 2006, when he won 19 games with a 3.63 ERA.

"After the injury," said catcher Jorge Posada, "he came back and he wasn't himself. It took really, like, three or four starts to really get going. And ever since then, he's been able to take the ball any time he wanted to."

Since the end of April, Wang is 18-4 with a 3.53 ERA. He has ironed out his mechanics. He has thrown his non-sinkerball offerings more and with greater success, holding hitters to a .262 batting average, against a mark of .277 last year.

Whether the voting baseball writers have yet caught on or not, Wang has pitched his way into the awards-season picture.

"I think he doesn't get the recognition, and I don't know why," Posada said. "But I've seen him every day. I've seen what he's been able to do. I think he's, for us, been No. 1. I think he's the Cy Young winner."

There are candidates with similar performance records and varying styles.

Yankees Coverage
Jeter's late homer lifts Yanks
Yanks gear up for lesser opponents
Chamberlain springs curve on Sox
Notes: Peace of mind for Posada

Red Sox Coverage
Schilling's gem ends with loss
Bauman: Game mirrors Classic duel
Sox don't take lead for granted
Notes: Matsuzaka pushed back
Season Series
Yankees win 10-8
• 9/16: Yankees 4, Red Sox 3
• 9/15: Red Sox 10,Yankees 1
• 9/14: Yankees 8, Red Sox 7
Previous season series
2006: Yankees 11, Red Sox 8
2005: Yankees 10, Red Sox 9
2004: Red Sox 11, Yankees 8

"You've go to think about Beckett," said Yankees backup catcher Jose Molina. "You've go to think about [John] Lackey in Anaheim, [Kelvim] Escobar in Anaheim, [Cleveland's C.C.] Sabathia. You've got to think about a lot of guys who are pitching well for winning teams."

Wang's style -- which is to pitch to contact, inducing ground balls with a sinker that is rivaled only by fellow Cy candidate Fausto Carmona of the Indians -- has nevertheless led to only 91 strikeouts against Beckett's 173.

"It doesn't matter," Posada says. "When you [consider] ERA and the things he's able to do, winning-wise, it just doesn't matter how you do it. He's been able to do it consistently."

Pitching matchup
NYY: RHP Chien-Ming Wang (18-6, 3.69 ERA)
Wang has been steady under scrutiny against Boston, which he has faced more than any other team this season. In his last start against the Red Sox, on Aug. 30, Wang was brilliant. He threw seven efficient innings of one-hit ball at Yankee Stadium, striking out five. Against the Red Sox this season, he is 3-1 with a 3.24 ERA, despite allowing 36 baserunners in 25 innings.

BOS: RHP Josh Beckett (18-6, 3.27 ERA)
Beckett has been far less successful pitching against his archrival than Wang, posting a 5.49 ERA and allowing 30 hits in 19 2/3 innings. That adds up to a .353 opponents' batting average, far worse than against any team he has faced more than once. In a loss to the Yankees on Aug. 29, Beckett allowed 13 hits in 6 2/3 innings, but he still held the Bronx Bombers to just four runs.

Player to watch
First baseman Jason Giambi, whose defensive travails on Friday gave the Red Sox a boost, will look to bounce back opposite Beckett, against whom he has slugged .846 in 13 at-bats.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• FOX

On radio
• WCBS, 92.7 WQBU (Español)

Up next
• Sunday: Yankees (Roger Clemens, 6-6, 4.45) at Red Sox (Curt Schilling, 8-7, 3.93), 8:05 p.m. ET
• Monday: Orioles (TBD) at Yankees (Phil Hughes, 3-3, 4.91), 7:05 p.m. ET
• Tuesday: Orioles (TBD) at Yankees (TBD), 7:05 p.m. ET

Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.