Torii Hunter brought swim goggles to the park on Sept. 10. That’s pretty much all you need to know about how dominant the Los Angeles Angels have been in relation to the American League West this regular season, which for them now boils down to deciding whether they will open the playoffs at Angel Stadium, Tropicana Field, or Fenway Park.
Only five teams since divisional play began in 1969 have clinched a division so early, a luxury that could pay dividends in October. Red Sox Manager Terry Francona has experienced charging into the playoffs and cruising in, and he’s fully aware of the importance of the difference.
“In ’04, we lost out on the division with about five games left,” Francona said. “We had clinched the wild card. So we could make up our rotation, and it really helped. In ’05 we did not have that ability, and it came back to bite us in the playoffs [a three-game sweep to the White Sox]. In ’06 we weren’t there. Last year, we did have that ability. It certainly helps. But you can’t look past whatever you need to do in the present, or we can really hurt ourselves.”
The Red Sox are now 5.5 games up in the wild card standings over the Minnesota Twins with 17 games to play. The work to make it isn’t over, but with a magic number of 12, it’s getting close. At the least, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which the Red Sox enter the final week of the season with the wild card secure and in a dogfight with Tampa Bay for the AL East. At that point, what would take priority: Preparing for the playoffs or gunning for the division and, possibly, the best record in the AL?
“I don’t know that I care to even answer that,” Francona said. “I think that’s getting out ahead of what we try to talk about everyday – staying in the moment and playing good baseball. That’s ultimately all we need to do. And then we’ll see where it takes us. Then if we get into a position where we need to make decisions, we’ll figure it out. The way we play will dictate what the circumstances are.”
This column sheds some insight into manager Mike Scioscia’s thinking, moving forward toward the end of the year. It’s clear – and it seems genuine, not just coachspeak – that the Red Sox are not taking their spot in the playoffs for granted, even as the rest of us, both writers and fans, pretty much are.
Francona did answer a few questions about the topic yesterday, one of which offered an unusual, but interesting, take: Is it an advantage for a team (the Red Sox, potentially) to ramp up as the season winds down as opposed to playing without urgency (the Angels, definitely) for several weeks?
“We always feel whatever we do, we try to turn it into an advantage,” Francona said. “If we had the time off, we would try to make it to our advantage. If we don’t that, we would try to make it to our advantage.”
From a fans' perspective, how important is winning the division as opposed to gearing for the playoffs with the proper pitching rotation and rest? (Don't forget who comes to Fenway for the final three games of the season.)