Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thinking Wild Card

Do you know what this recently completed three game series against Tampa reminded me of? An almost identical three game series that the Sox had against the Yankees in Fenway over almost the exact same dates.

Last year the Sox played a three game home series against the Yankees over the weekend of September 14-16. The Yankees took two of three in that series, but the Sox very easily could have swept. Sound familiar? In both of the Red Sox two losses in that series they entered the eighth inning with the lead.

Their first loss of the series in the Friday game, was the most shocking.

Heading into the eighth inning the Sox were up 7-2 and seemingly cruising to victory. And then Red Sox killers Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano led off the eighth inning with back-to-back homers which was followed by the next five batters reaching base and four of them scoring. I am not exaggerating when I say that inning still sticks out in my head as the fastest I have ever seen a team score six runs. It was just a barrage of hits and when it was over, you knew the Sox weren't rallying for that one run in their last two at-bats because the Yankees demoralized them so thoroughly with that eighth inning bludgeoning. To put in perspective how shocking a turn of events that eighth inning was after the Sox had been cruising for innings 1-7, my parents were in town that weekend and I stayed with them in their hotel that night. They went to sleep around the seventh inning - which of course meant it was about 11:00 thanks to the pace Sox-Yankees games go at - and the next morning when I told my dad that the Sox actually lost his response was, "you're shitting me". He's not a big curser or anything so when he responds like this, the news is clearly shocking.

I'm not sure which game was the more crushing defeat thinking in hindsight, that one or the Tuesday game featuring the Papelbon blown save after Bay's eighth inning go-ahead homer but I am apt to say that Yankees game. Why? Even though, the game from Tuesday featured the Sox blowing the perfect opportunity to move into first place for the first time since July, I still was not entirely shocked with the outcome. Papelbon has been very up and down this year, and sending him into a one-run game, pitching for the third straight day seemed like a risky proposition. Of course it was the right move to make, but when I saw the lead crumble in his hands I can't say I was shocked. That's kind of been his MO this year; either awesome or awful. Luckily it's awesome much more often than awful but doesn't it seem like you can sense a shaky Papelbon outing from a mile away? Maybe it's just me. Anyway, for as much as Tuesday's game sucked, that Yankees game was much worse considering that it cemented everybody's worst nightmares and fears at the time which were that the Red Sox were going to blow the division to the Yankees. Of course they did not, but that was Worry Number 1 on everybody's mind at this time last year.

Regarding their other loss in that Yankees series, the Sunday game, it was a loss just like their loss on Wednesday. Even though they lead heading into the eighth, they continually stranded runners in scoring position and failed to get THE hit when they needed it. And then Tito left Schilling in too long, bringing him out for the eighth inning when seven innings of one run ball from Schilling (where he was up to that point) was an absolute best case scenario. Of course he allowed two batters to reach, and then Javier Lopez was summoned to face Derk Jeter and surrender the most predictable Derek Jeter home run in recent history. That home run also proved to be the decisive blow in the game.

Of course if you don't remember that game very much then I don't blame you. If you recall, that game was an ESPN Sunday Nighter and NBC's Sunday Night Football Game that evening was the Pats and the Chargers. Not only was it a primetime matchup of two of the NFL's marquis teams and not only was it the first meeting between the two team's since the Patriots upset them in the playoffs at home the year before and got stupidly accused of over-celebrating by perpetual cry-babies Shawne Merriman and LaDanian Tomlinson. No, it was also the first game since Spygate broke. And it was also fresh off Tomlinson's - playing on a team with a number of caught steroid users - "if you aren't cheating, you aren't trying" comments RE: the Patriots. So obviously, that Pats game and how they responded was a huge deal and if you don't remember the Sox game from that night then I really don't blame you.

Speaking of which, back to the Sox...

Like Wednesday's game, the Sox lost a series finale they could have and should have won, but did not deserve to thanks to stranding legions of guys on base. Like turning the ball over in football, it seems like the one stat that always catches up to you in baseball is runners left on base. If you leave a lot of guys on base, most of the time you will lose. Furthermore, you could sense that Yankees loss coming from a mile away just like you could in Wednesday's game.

One thing I will say about Wednesday's game that I was doing and I can almost promise that every other Sox fan was doing the same thing, and that was keeping a running tab in my head of how long they could go before having to turn to Mike Timlin. I pretty much felt that if the Sox could get by without having to use Timlin then they would win. If Timlin entered a tie game however then the game was as good as lost. Of course he rewarded my faith by giving up a tidy three-spot in the 14th, which was the least surprising development of the evening, but let's not blame him OK. Let's blame the offense for leaving 13 guys on base and going 1-14 with runners in scoring position. And Papi, why the F are you bunting in the 12th inning even if you are going for a hit (which you failed at)? Aren't you supposed to be The Greatest Clutch Hitter in Red Sox History? Shouldn't you be going for the walkoff hit there? Or at the very least an extra base hit to try and bring Pedroia around? I was watching the ESPN guys and they gave him a free pass for that. I'd like to think that the Boston guys did not, which I am guessing is the case because say what you will about Jerry Remy, he always gets on Papi - and rightly so I think - when he pulls the bunt for a hit stunt when the third base side of the infield is wide open. I'm all for that if he is leading off an inning in a two run game, but absolutely not when he is hitting with a runner on in a tie game. Ugh. The Sox lost a game on Wednesday the could have and should have won, but the bottom line is that they did not deserve the W there. So it goes sometimes.

As far as the big picture goes, right now it will probably be pretty tough for the Sox to take the division from the Rays barring a sweep in Tampa next week which I would classify as unlikely. Combine that with a four game weekend set coming up with the Blue Jays who just terrify me - I'll take a split and be happy! - and the odds seem to dip even further. Of course the Sox can still take the division, but I am not too optimistic. The good news is though that they are a near cinch for the Wild Card holding a 5 game lead with 17 to play. Not an insurmountable lead, but pretty close.

If the goal is to get into the playoffs, the Sox are going to succeed there, but I will say that I think things will be much trickier this year going in as a Wild Card entrant than they have been in the past. While the Sox have improved recently on the road, they still do not inspire great confidence there. Furthermore, their road to the World Series most likely looks like it will start in Anaheim and then if they can advance past them, move onto either Chicago or Tampa. While I truly think the Sox have the best team as currently constructed right now, I am curious to see how not having home field will effect them. It didn't hurt in 2004 but it was absolutely crucial last year in their rally against the Indians. Given the choice, you'd always rather have home field and facing the White Sox in the Division round seems to be an easier draw than the Angels, although we said that in 2005 as well.

Bottom line though, the Sox are going to be in the playoffs again, will probably be close to World Series favorites when they start, and now that the division is most likely out of the picture they can focus on resting some key players when need be. If winning the Wild Card instead of the division results in having a healthy, rested, and full functioning team come October then I think that is a pretty good silver lining. If the team is as good as I think they are, playing one less home game per series in the ALDS and hopefully ALCS should not matter. Now, I say it is time to start focusing on the playoffs first and foremost and secondly to start hoping that the Red Sox do not embarrass themselves with another, excessive Wild Card celebration. You know they will though. Good problem to have I say.

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