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Dan Shaughnessy

In the season's last week, they need to stay on top of things

The playoff-bound Red Sox are home tonight to start the final six games of the regular season, and manager Terry Francona continues to straddle the line between playing for the division title (and the best record in the league) and getting his team ready for the postseason.

I say go for it. Beat the Yankees. Win the division. Cop the best record in the American League to give yourself home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Use Jonathan Papelbon the way you'd use him in July and August. Find out if Manny can play before he calcifies at the end of the bench. Tell Eric Gagné to find his mojo on somebody else's watch. Stop babying Clay Buchholz and get the kid ready for playoff action. Play Jacoby Ellsbury until he's no longer hitting .372 or until he gets thrown out stealing one time. Fire all your guns at once and explode into space.

Rest? That's what November, December, January, and February are for. Tell the tired and wounded fellas to suck it up and remember the words of the late, great Warren Zevon, who wrote, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."

Francona and the people in Red Sox Baseball Ops don't see it that way, of course. That's why they have the jobs they have instead of writing hysterical prose to inflame the fandom.

It's certainly an interesting dilemma. With six to play, the Sox lead the Yankees by two games in the AL East, are a half-game ahead of the AL West champion Angels, and a half-game behind the Central winners from Cleveland.

Locally, much is always made of Boston's position in regard to the Yankees. The Sox have finished behind the Bronx Bombers in each of the last 11 seasons and led the Yanks by 14 1/2 games this year. Some Sox fans want to beat the Yankees more than they want to set up the postseason prospects. Understandable, no?

But there's more to it than bragging rights. There is home-field advantage. If the Red Sox finish tied with the Yankees, Boston becomes the wild card and New York is awarded the division crown on the basis of head-to-head results. This means the Sox potentially would face three road games in a first-round five-game series against Cleveland or Los Angeles. It also would mean the Sox would play four of a possible seven in Yankee Stadium if they made it to the second round against New York.

So beating the Yankees has merit - over and above the emotional factors and the obvious embarrassment that comes with coughing up a 14 1/2-game lead to the Evil Empire.

Beating Cleveland and Los Angeles brings additional perks. The Sox would get home field in all three rounds and they'd be allowed to dictate whether they want to play the first series over a period of seven or eight days. Conventional wisdom holds that anyone playing Cleveland wants to play over seven days and minimize the chances of seeing both C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona twice in a five-game set.

It's unlikely that anything - Boston's opponent, the first game site, or the dates of the Division Series - will be decided until Saturday or Sunday. This makes Francona's job especially challenging this week. He knows that the vengeful masses want Yankee blood. He knows the advantages of home field and dictating the pace of the first round. He has a clubhouse full of competitors who want to win every game. But he runs the risk of bringing back Manny Ramírez too soon and having him aggravate the oblique strain that has kept him on the shelf for nearly four weeks. He also has the baseball ops people telling him that Buchholz will turn into a pumpkin if he pitches another 20 innings this fall.

There's plenty of evidence to fortify either side of the issue. The 2004 Red Sox lacked home-field advantage in the first two rounds and still managed to sweep the Angels and embarrass the Yankees in the 161st Street Theater. Last year's Detroit Tigers stumbled to the finish line, blowing the division title on the final weekend of the season, then cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

But there is something to be said for being a hot team (the Red Sox have lost six of nine) and playing well as you head into the tournament. Hall of Fame skipper Earl Weaver took his foot off the accelerator with the 1969 Orioles. The O's won 109 games but Earl let up at the end of the year and wound up losing the World Series to the Mets in five games. Some blamed his team's late-season, post-clinch lethargy.

Not Earl.

"We definitely let up that year," Weaver said yesterday from his home in Florida. "I rested them. We had a long time to get ready. But I'd do it again. You need to get your players healthy and get guys in who might have some rust from being on the bench.

"I'm not talking about taking 'em out for two or three games, but you can treat it a little like spring training. But that's not what hurt us. It was Tom Seaver and those guys that hurt us in that Series."

This from the man who first said that momentum in baseball is all about tomorrow's starting pitcher.

So in the end, the October work of Beckett, Schilling, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Pettitte, Wang, Mussina, and Clemens will probably matter more than the division flag or the best record in the American League.

Still, the Sox have a two-game lead over the Yanks with six to play, all at home. Wouldn't it be nice to see them win the division? Just this once?

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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