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To these Sox, a tip of the cap

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 18, 2009 11:16 AM

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Six games up with 17 to play, the Red Sox once again seem destined for October. Under the circumstances, at the risk of jinxing them, maybe it is time to give the Red Sox their due.

Despite a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels last night at Fenway Park, the Sox left Boston last night on the heels of a brilliant homestand that all but solidified their place in October. Over a span of eight games, the Sox went 7-1.

They outscored opponents 49-20, an average score of roughly 6-3. The Sox batted .311 while posting a 1.99 ERA, outhomering their opponents, 12-2. In the marathon that is the major league season, while the Texas Rangers were floundering against the Oakland A’s, this was how the wild card was won.

Still, make no mistake: The 2009 season has been an extraordinary test of talent, grit, leadership and perseverance.

Naturally, for the general manager, it always feels that way.

Asked by e-mail whether this season has been more of chore than any other during his seven-year tenure, Sox GM Theo Epstein yesterday countered with a rather succinct reply.

"It seems like it’s always a grind,’’ Epstein wrote.

And he’s right. In baseball, given the length of the season and inevitable challenges, nothing ever comes easily and nothing should ever, ever be taken for granted.

This year, especially, we all should have learned that. Let’s remember that the American League East this season was hyped as a three-horse race -- but with room for only two horses. The only guarantee was that at least one team among the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees would be squeezed out.

The surprising emergence of the Texas Rangers as a wild-card contender complicated things, particularly during that midseason stretch when the Red Sox appeared to be unraveling, and Boston’s problems were not imaginary. The Red Sox had holes on offense and defense, as well as in their pitching staff, and the Sox weren’t looking to patch holes so much as they were in need of a renovation.

Given where the Sox are now, this all reflects quite well on the organizational leadership, particularly Epstein, whose in-season acquisitions have paid off enormously. Victor Martinez has been an absolute godsend. Alex Gonzalez has stabilized the defense on the left side of the infield. And while Billy Wagner has been a luxury, Epstein’s decision to build pitching depth -- and hold onto it -- has proven critical given the issues with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield as well as the timely development of Clay Buchholz.

While Terry Francona’s eyebrows were falling out, the Sox similarly were stressed to the point where their collective mettle was tested. Along the way, from Epstein to Francona to the clubhouse, the question wasn’t whether the Sox had the character or the makeup so much as it concerned whether they had the necessary talent.

Said Epstein modestly when asked specifically of imports Martinez, Gonzalez and Wagner: "All three guys have fit in to the team concept and made us a better overall club."

And this year more than most, the Red Sox needed to get better in order to be where they are today. Matsuzaka and Wakefield were sidelined. Mike Lowell was coming off hip surgery. David Ortiz traveled to Hades and back -- twice -- while J.D. Drew vanished for a time. Jonathan Papelbon labored. Jason Bay slumped. Jed Lowrie couldn’t get on the field. Meanwhile, the Yankees took control of the division, effectively leaving the Red Sox with no cushion in their pursuit of the postseason.

This year, by mid-August, it was the wild card or bust. To their credit, the Red Sox are continuing to choose their words carefully, unlike, say, the look-at-me New York Jets. The players in Fenway's home clubhouse recognize that actions speak louder than words. Simply put, the Sox know they have not won anything yet.

At the moment, for those who believe in formalities, the key number for the Red Sox is 97, the number victories the Sox currently need to guarantee a playoff spot. Entering tonight, the Rangers and Los Angeles Angels have seven games remaining against one another, meaning the Sox are guaranteed a combined seven losses from those two teams. In the worst-case scenario for the Sox, the Rangers can still win 97 games and the Angels can win 96. If the Sox get to 97, there is absolutely, positively no way for them to miss the playoffs. By the end of the weekend, that number is likely to dwindle to 96 … or 95 … or 94, particularly as the Sox embark on a road trip against the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals and Yankees before returning to Fenway Park for the final week of the regular season.

By now, we all know and understand the Red Sox’ formula and idea for success under current ownership and management: shoot for 95 wins every season, make the playoffs eight out of every 10 years, take your chances in the postseason. The championships will come. That plan so far seems to be working to perfection. If and when the Sox lock up their latest playoff berth in the coming days, it will mark their sixth postseason appearance during the seven seasons of Epstein’s tenure. Already, they have won two World Series and been to four League Championship Series.

And while the ultimate success of this Sox season depends on the team’s ability to win a championship -- the standards have changed, after all -- we should soon be able to state that 2009 was not a failure.

This year, after all, the Red Sox got themselves here the old-fashioned way.

They earned it.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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