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The distinction here is a reach

Making playoffs is all that matters

Braves president John Schuerholz knows that winning a division guarantees nothing. Braves president John Schuerholz knows that winning a division guarantees nothing. (File/Tami Chappell/Reuters)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / September 9, 2011

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As the Red Sox and Yankees engage in their traditional September arm-wrestling match, the annual question comes up again. Is it worth it for Boston to go all out to win the division title, which it has managed to do only twice since the present postseason format was adopted in 1995? Or is earning the wild-card ticket enough in a sport where nobody remembers what happened before October?

“From a pride standpoint, you like to win and get home-field advantage,’’ said Astros president of baseball operations Tal Smith, whose club made it to the 2005 World Series despite finishing 11 games behind St. Louis in the National League Central. “But the important thing is to get there.’’

The Sox have made it to the postseason nine times in the last 16 years, seven times as a wild card. They’ve won the World Series twice and have advanced to the League Championship Series three other times.

Winning a division crown clearly is an achievement.

“We want to put up that flag that says ‘AL East champions,’ ’’ Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon declared three years ago when the Rays posted their first winning season. “This isn’t the Patriot League.’’

But who outside of Houston recalls that the Astros earned four flags between 1997 and 2001 and lost in the Division Series each time?

“I thought our best shot was 1998,’’ mused Smith, whose club fell to San Diego after winning 102 games and claiming the division by more than a dozen. “That was the best team we had in our history.’’

The Red Sox won the AL East by seven games in 1995 and were swept by Cleveland, managing only six runs and batting .184. In 2004, when they didn’t clinch the wild card until the final week, they staged the greatest comeback in baseball history to win the pennant, then swept St. Louis for their first Series triumph since 1918.

For also-rans, wild cards perform surprisingly well. More than half of them have won their Division Series, nine have claimed the pennant, and four have taken the Series, with Florida doing it twice. In 2002, both participants in the Fall Classic (Anaheim and San Francisco) were wild cards.

“The wild-card team in baseball has a significant advantage over a wild card in football,’’ said baseball analyst Bill Chuck.

While six wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl, the National Football League makes it more difficult since conference also-rans have to play a preliminary round. Baseball’s wild cards get straight in, and the rule forbidding division rivals from meeting immediately helps clubs like Boston, which has avoided New York five times when the Yankees had the best overall record. And the short best-of-five series helps a runner-up that has a soft rotation below its top hurlers.

Not that winning the division isn’t more desirable, since two of the three champions in each league earn home-field advantage. The Yankees, who have traditionally regarded the wild card as a back door, have won the AL East 11 times. In seven of those years, they advanced to the Series, and won it five times.

“The only time I ever thought about being second was when I was fourth,’’ former manager Joe Torre once said. “In 1997, I said we were going for the wild card and I got my ass chewed out.’’

Finishing second, though, may not matter if a club is hot and healthy down the stretch. In 2007, the Rockies, who were in fourth place in mid-September, won 14 of their final 15 games, then swept the Phillies and Diamondbacks to win the pennant and faced Boston in the Series.

The Astros, who were in fifth place at the All-Star break in 2004, perked up when Phil Garner replaced Jimy Williams and finished up 36-10, winning their final seven. Then they expunged the Braves, who had walked away with the NL East, and pushed the Cardinals to seven games in the League Championship Series.

“On June 1, 2005, we got buried with a tombstone by the Houston Chronicle,’’ recalled Smith, whose club then was in last place. But Houston went 37-18 in August and September, then wiped out the Braves and Cardinals en route to their first Series appearance.

Winning the division comes with no guarantee.

“We’ve had teams that waltzed through the division but were beaten by wild cards,’’ said Braves president John Schuerholz, whose club lost in the Division Series four times from 2002-05. “They’ve been in survival mode game by game, inning by inning, pitch by pitch.’’

Whether a club finishes first or second, it’s vital to not wear yourself out getting there. In 2005, when the Sox were in the division race with the Yankees until the final weekend, they didn’t edge the Indians for the wild card until the final day. So skipper Tito Francona had to go with Matt Clement in the opener against the White Sox. Clement was racked for five runs in the first inning, the Sox lost, 14-2, and went down in three.

As long as a club qualifies, it’s usually better to win or lose the race by half a dozen games in order to get regulars rested and the rotation in rhythm.

“Getting your ducks in order really is the way to go,’’ said Chuck, the editor of BaseballAnalytics.org.

Prudence and pragmatism prevail when the postseason is at stake, and the Sox operate by what general manager Theo Epstein calls a “cost/benefit analysis.’’ Sometimes finishing second can make for a more favorable matchup, although the form chart can deceive.

In 2006, the Athletics were hoping to face the sagging Tigers instead of the soaring Twins. They ended up sweeping Minnesota and being swept by Detroit.

More than most, this year has no form chart. How often does a second-place team have an 11-4 edge over the division leader, as the Sox do on the Yankees? Or have a better record on the road than at home?

The weirdest rivalry in baseball this summer has been Boston-Texas. After being wiped out by 9-5, 12-5, and 5-1 counts in Arlington at the start of the season, the Sox won, 11-5, 13-2, and 6-0 there last month. Then, on consecutive days a week later, the Sox lost, 10-0, at Fenway, won 12-7, then lost, 11-4.

“That was one of the most bizarre series you’ll ever see,’’ said Chuck. “No game was close enough that any pitcher could earn a save.’’

So whom does Red Sox Nation want to see in October? The Rangers, who have been wilting (9-11 since Aug. 18) after playing 15 straight home games with the temperature above 100 degrees at game time? The Tigers, whom they’ve mastered five of six times but will throw Justin Verlander at them twice? Or the Angels, whom they’ve beaten six of eight but who swept them in 2009.

“This year we may not know until the last game of the season,’’ Chuck reckoned.

What the Sox do know is that barring a meltdown of Vesuvian proportions, they’ll be playing somebody somewhere at the end of the season, as they have all but twice since 2003. The postseason is an eight-team tournament that can be won by any of them, Epstein likes to say. Getting there is the whole point of those 162 games.

“Once you earn your way into the playoffs, it matters not which entryway you use,’’ said Schuerholz, whose Braves are close to wrapping up another wild-card bid. “You’ve found the entryway. What we’re all striving for is the world championship. At the end, who’s the last team standing?’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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