Their playoff spot is secure, the division has been clinched, and they've partied hardy in celebration. Now the postseason awaits for the first time since 2009, and as the owners of baseball's best record, there's plenty of reason for the Red Sox to be excited about its possibilities.
But first comes a big week that could have a significant impact on those aspirations for October.
On the surface it doesn't seem all that significant. There's an oddly timed two-day trip to Colorado, where they'll play the last-place Rockies twice before taking Thursday off. They'll then head to Baltimore for a three-game set with the Orioles, who just played themselves out of contention by getting swept by the Rays.
However, it's a stretch that begins with the Sox (at 95-62) leading the Athletics (at 94-63) by just a single game in the battle for the top seed in the American League tournament -- and that's absolutely a prize not to be taken lightly, given the numerous competitive advantages it would afford Boston.
The most obvious benefit is earning the opportunity to face the winner of the wild card play-in game, which would mean starting the Division Series two days after their opponent was presumably forced to use its ace and theoretically spend all available resources to advance. Currently it's the Rays and Indians who have the inside track to the berths in that winner-take-all showdown, with the Rangers close behind, so whoever wins the top seed won't likely have to face David Price, Justin Masterson, or Yu Darvish until at least Game 3.
And thus while the wild-card winner is forced to desperately go to its second (or third) choice to pitch Game 1, plus a potential Game 5, the top seed can align its rotation however it sees fit.
Another substantial benefit of facing a wild card team in the ALDS is not having to face Detroit in that first round. Though they haven't been great lately -- they're 23-21 since Aug. 8 -- the Tigers' starting rotation makes them a beastly threat in a playoff series. Max Scherzer is likely going to win the AL Cy Young Award, Anibal Sanchez is closing in on the ERA title, Justin Verlander has slumped but still has a dozen starts this season in which he's allowed zero or one earned run, and Doug Fister threw seven shutout innings at Fenway three weeks ago.
That's unrelenting enough. Then you add to the mix the only AL offense that's come close to scoring as many runs as the Red Sox, and that's a matchup Boston would rather avoid.
And, of course, there's also the benefit of home-field advantage. Whichever AL team finishes with the best record will open every playoff series at home -- including the World Series -- and would also play any necessary winner-take-all contests in their own ballpark.
That's typically less important in baseball than it might be in football or basketball, but the Red Sox finished the regular season 53-28 at Fenway Park. They're a better team there than they are elsewhere. On top of that, the A's -- at 52-29 -- are better in Oakland than they are on the road, so if those clubs were to meet in the AL Championship Series the favorite would be whichever had earned the right to host the opener.
That privilege is the Sox' to lose at this point -- but they've got to handle their business this week in order to maintain it. The A's are on the road, too, visiting the Angels the next couple of days before going north to face the Mariners over this 162-game marathon's final weekend.
Los Angeles is tied with Boston for the second-best record in baseball over its past 30 games, so it could help the Sox. Conversely, though, Seattle has the second-worst mark in the game over that same span, so the Red Sox shouldn't count on the Mariners for much assistance.
But if the Sox hiccup in Denver or in Baltimore, they very well may need some help because at this point the tiebreaker favors the A's. Boston and Oakland split the season series, winning three games apiece, so if they wind up tied atop the AL, the tie will be broken according to intra-division record -- and going into Wednesday the A's have a percentage-point lead in that category. Their 42-29 record against the West equates to a .5915 winning percentage; the Red Sox' 43-30 mark against the East puts theirs at .5890.
The A's also have the advantage if the teams wind up with the same overall and intradivision records, too, as the tiebreaker then becomes the best winning percentage in intraleague games. Oakland finished 13-7 against the National League, while Boston goes to Denver at 13-5. So if the Red Sox win one against the Rockies, they'd have more NL wins -- and thus fewer AL wins -- if the teams to wind up in a tie. The tiebreaker would thus go to the A's.
The teams could end up with the same number of wins against both the AL and NL if the Red Sox lose twice in Colorado then win one fewer game in Baltimore than the Athletics do over their final five contests. It would then go to the fourth tiebreaker -- though that would go Oakland's way, too. The deciding factor would then be record against AL teams in the second of half of intraleague games, and the A's begin Wednesday night with two more wins than Boston over that stretch, so there's no scenario where Boston can make up that gap if the teams wind up tied.
So, basically, there's no scenario in which the Red Sox would win a tiebreaker with the A's.
Thus although they've clinched, and partied, and started selling playoff tickets, but this is no time to sit back, relax, and rest. They shouldn't overextend their pitchers or put anyone in a position where he is risking injury, and of course the Sox should during this road trip conduct make every decision in a way that's mindful of what's to come -- but the best way to do that is to keep winning, because October gets that much more difficult if they don't. That makes this a big week, indeed.
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