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Down the stretch come the Red Sox

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  September 9, 2013 11:48 AM

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TAMPA, Fla. The Red Sox (87-58) have a 7.5 game lead on the Tampa Bay Rays (78-64) in the American League East. The third-place Baltimore Orioles (76-66) are 9.5 games out.

According to Cool Standings the Red Sox have a 99-percent chance of winning the division.

But until the Red Sox are soaking their beards in champagne, perhaps it would be worth examining the pennant race. After all, Cool Standings said the Sox had a 93.1 percent chance of making the playoffs after 145 games in 2011.

Theme song for the Sox right now? "Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won't Do)." The Wilson Pickett version is quite excellent.

The schedule: The Sox have 17 games left. After three games at Tampa Bay, they have a nine-game homestand against the Yankees, Orioles and Blue Jays. Then they end the season with two games at Colorado and three at Baltimore.

The opposition: Tampa Bay has a brutal schedule. The Rays are off today after a 3-7 West Coast trip. After three games against the Red Sox they go back on the road for three games at Minnesota before returning home for four games against Texas and three against Baltimore. Then they finish on the road against the Yankees and Blue Jays.

The advantage: Starting Tuesday the Red Sox have 17 games in 20 days. Starting Tuesday the Rays have 20 games in 20 days.

The issue: The loss of Jacoby Ellsbury will certainly affect the Sox. He's one of the best players in the game; their lineup is not the same without him. But his absence shouldn't lead to a collapse and all indications are that he should return before the end of the season.

The Sox have Jackie Bradley on the roster and Quentin Berry should be able to steal a base when needed. Worth noting: The Sox are 10-4 this season in games Ellsbury hasn't started.

Given Ellsbury's pending free agency, might the Sox play Bradley every day to see what they have in him?

The incentive: If the Sox win the division, they'll have four days off before their first playoff game, which would almost certainly be at home. Four days off would help battered players like Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Jarrod Saltalamacchia feel significantly better.

Prediction: The Sox go 10-7 down the stretch and finish with 97 wins. That would win the division going away.

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