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Have titles made them feel entitled?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 14, 2011 07:44 AM

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Tim Wakefield has been grinding, the way the Red Sox are grinding now, and so maybe there is a measure of symmetry there. Wakefield is 45. Entering tonight, he has pitched more innings than John Lackey. He has given the Red Sox more outs than anyone expected this season, more outs than anyone could have asked, more outs than the Red Sox should have needed.

Out of the woods? No, no, no. The Red Sox aren’t even close yet. A Red Sox loss today, coupled with a Tampa Bay win tonight, would put the Sox right back in the crosshairs entering a four-game series with the Rays that starts tomorrow. The opposite of that – a Red Sox win and a Tampa Bay loss – would go a long way toward alleviating much of the pressure the Sox have needlessly placed upon themselves at a point in this season where the Sox should have been shifting their focus exclusively to the playoffs.

“We’ve got 15 games left and we’re up, what, four now?” second baseman Dustin Pedroia told reporters after the win. “We’re all taking it like it’s the playoffs now.”

So there you go. The Red Sox themselves understand what they have done. October is a grind to begin with, the games taxing and grueling, something the Sox know in this millennium as well as anybody. Beginning in October 2003, the Red Sox have played 57 postseason games, more than any franchise in baseball but the New York Yankees (65). And yet this year, thanks to the schizophrenic tendencies of this team, the Sox decided to start October early, recklessly tossing away a downright fluffy lead in the playoff race like some spoiled collection of silver spoons.

In retrospect, isn’t that really what this latest stretch, this entire season, has been about? The Red Sox take the playoffs for granted now, as if the regular season is a necessary evil. They spent the winter tossing around money like a crew of drunken sailors, then showed up for work expecting everything to take care of itself. Then the Sox came out and went 2-10 to start the season, a downright embarrassing beginning that sounded alarms and immediately revealed the potentially fatal flaw in this club.

The Sox know how good they are.

And as a result, they are far too willing to go on auto pilot and coast.

In the big picture, the mere fact that this is still a race at this point is a negative. The Red Sox have a payroll approaching $180 million this year. The Rays are closer to $50 million. Josh Beckett started talking about a 100-win season during spring training, before the Sox even played a game, and many of us took that as a sign that the Sox were not running from their potential. Rather, they were embracing it, prepared to steamroll their way through a league in which there were maybe two remotely comparable rosters.

Instead, the opposite happened. The Sox took their talent for granted. It is one thing to endure mediocre stretches in a baseball season that is, by definition, seemingly interminable; it is another to fall asleep out of sheer cockiness and boredom. Boston’s lapses, if that is what we choose to call them, have come with annoying frequency and consistency. They weren’t ready to start the year. They dozed off against bad teams. They all but shut it down when they thought they had a playoff spot locked up.

For sure, this team can grind when it must, no one more so than second baseman Pedroia, who again grabbed the Sox by the collar last night and gave a good, hard shake. Pedroia was a high draft choice, to be sure, but he is also a 5-foot-nothing, 100-and-nothing-pound second baseman who has been disproving people his entire life. Take Pedroia’s intangibles out of the equation (along with those of a select few others) and the 2011 Red Sox might be in the running for the Worst Team Money Could Buy, a collection of fat cats who too often think they can win by just showing up.

Of course, that’s one of the biggest problems with baseball. More often than not, talent wins. At least during the regular season.

But in the playoffs? That remains to be seen. Subscribers to the theories of Moneyball – playing soon at a theater near you – will try to tell you that postseason success is luck, but that is utter hogwash. Was the Red Sox’ comeback in the 2004 American League Championship Series purely a matter of luck? What about the one in 2007? Or were the Sox just the kind of team that executed under duress, that possessed resiliency and fight, that refused to collapse and simply had more guts than their opponents?

By contrast, this Sox team seems far less interested in winning a World Series championship than in being given one, which cannot help but evoke comparisons to the 2004 Yankees. Despite an offseason dominated by the Red Sox prior to that season, the Yankees won the division with 101 victories. Then the Yankees jumped to a 3-0 lead in the ALCS. One year removed from a stunning, comeback win over the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS, the Yankees thought they had another trip to the World Series all but locked up, one more victory over Boston serving as nothing more than a formality.

Of course, the Yankees never got that win. They gave away that series as much as the Red Sox came back and won it. Yankee arrogance was as much as a factor in that collapse as any shortage of pitching, something we all said at that time because we believed the Red Sox wanted it more, because the Red Sox were hungrier, because the Red Sox were driven.

Is that still true now?

Or do the Red Sox have that same sense of entitlement that we so long despised?

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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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