Time Out For Sports Talk: The Road To Sox-tober (Part 2)
Todd: Once again we’ll use this space to heap praise upon the Red Sox as they prepare to make their first postseason appearance since 2009, which feels like an eternity ago given everything the franchise has gone through over the last four years.
Last week Mike said these Sox reminded him of the 2004 squad (and given how that season ended I hope he’s proven to be correct). But as presently constituted, I think a better comparison would be to the team of 10 years ago. Like this current group, the 2003 Red Sox had not qualified for the postseason in four years, had a deep and balanced offensive attack and a suspect bullpen that didn’t truly get their collective act together until October, although ironically that’s when old friend Grady Little opted not to trust them and instead left in a fatigued Pedro Martinez to pitch Game 7 of the ALCS (and sadly we all remember how that ended).
Like a decade ago, here’s hoping a couple of arms emerge for manager John Farrell that he can rely on to bridge the gap from his strong starting rotation to uber-closer Koji Uehara (quick aside on Koji—I was kind of glad to see his streak of 37 straight retired batters end now, if only so he wouldn’t have to carry the burden of that streak into the playoffs). One possible setup option for Farrell is southpaw Craig Breslow (1.91 ERA in 58 games), who has been especially consistent down the stretch. Another is Junichi Tazawa, who I really hope can become the 2013 version of Mike Timlin or Scott Williamson—ten years ago those guys struggled through most of the regular season before getting hot when the games counted most.
One dark horse candidate for late-inning relief help might be converted starter Ryan Dempster, especially if he could somehow channel the 2005-2007 version of himself when he had 85 saves as the closer for the Chicago Cubs. I’m not suggesting that’s a given, but even this season his best success as a starter came in his first two innings of work (higher K/BB, lower opponents’ OBP). Another hard thrower that could emerge as a strong setup option is lefty Franklin Morales, who has pitched fairly well since returning from a stint on the DL. It will be interesting to see who Farrell ultimately chooses to round out the postseason staff behind the five reliable arms of Lester, Buchholz, Lackey, Peavy and Uehara.
While there are questions that need to be answered about the Sox bullpen, there are few when it comes to the hitters. Similar to the boys of '03, this is a deep lineup that does not need to rely on one or two players. The 2013 Sox currently lead all of baseball in runs, RBI, doubles and OPS (on-base pct plus slugging pct), and although they only rank ninth as a team in home runs, I’m impressed that eight different Sox batters have hit at least ten round-trippers (and both Pedroia and Carp only need one more each to reach that plateau). As has been the case all season, it's been a different offensive hero every night, something that will serve this team well when the second season begins in ten days at Fenway Park.
What will also serve the Sox well is securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs, assuming they can hold off the Oakland A’s during this final week. Whoever finishes the regular season with the best record in the American League will truly enjoy that advantage, as the Sox finished an AL-best 53-28 at Fenway, while the A’s finished just behind them at 52-29. Also of note, Oakland's 52 home wins represent the most for any MLB team with regular raw sewage floods in their dugout.
A much less stinky shout-out goes to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who this week officially clinched their first playoff berth in 21 years, which also happened to be the last time they had a winning record. That's an accomplishment worthy of donning a painters cap and eating a french fry-stuffed sandwich!
Mike: I have been continually surprised by the Red Sox this season. I thought they were bound to be better, but I would have told anyone that they were crazy if they said going into this year that the Sox would win the division, and to top that off, have a real shot at clinching the AL's best record.
I do need to confess that I am on a bit of a Red Sox break right now, much like the players, it's been a long season for us fans, and I need to be fresh as the long (and late) nights of playoff baseball begin. So, once they clinched the division, I took the opportunity to "get off my feet" as John Farrell would say, and rest my baseball mind for the playoffs.
But that hasn't stopped me from keeping up the excitement of the anticipation of a Red Sox playoff run. For a while, it seemed like an almost automatic thing, the Sox made the playoffs every year.
But then that stopped.
Sure, for us older fans, who lived through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, a 4-year drought doesn't seem like much, but when you get used to success, the sudden absence of it is very noticeable. Now, four years removed from the team's last playoff game, I find myself excited once again for October baseball.
And what's even more exciting is the fact that the Red Sox aren't just stumbling into the postseason as a wild card team. No, they are coming into the playoffs firing on all cylinders and they have a real shot at winning the American League, if not the World Series.
Sure, they will face some stiff competition, especially in Detroit and possibly Oakland, but I still think the Sox are the strongest team in the playoffs, and will come out on top. Will they have enough to win it all? That's hard to say, but the fact that they have a realistic chance is a good thing.
After all, we've waited six whole years for a World Series title, and after ending an 86-year wait, we've become more impatient.